Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Mendocino County’s Overdose Deaths are the Highest in California While Opioid Settlement Funds Are Used to Backfill Budget

Comparison of a U.S. penny to a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl [Photograph from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration]

Mendocino County has the highest per capita number of overdose deaths in the state, with 54.7 per 100,000 in 2021. And there’s not always enough treatment, according to Clover Martin, the Treatment Services Director at the Ford Street Project in Ukiah. This week, she said, “We do not have any female beds available. Probably the next available female bed is three weeks away. So if you can imagine being a mother or a grandmother or a father and calling to try and get your family member in and you have to be told no, or I don’t know when the bed is going to be available or we need to put you on a wait list, that’s tough. And our male status for beds, we have two.”

Since November of last year, the county has received $1.4 million from opioid settlement agreements. This week, Aneri Pattani of the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that last year the Board of Supervisors approved the use of over $63,000 of settlement money to balance the county’s budget. That includes backfilling a portion of the multi-million dollar hole in the health care plan.

Erica Valdovinos is an ER doctor at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley. She also works for California Bridge, an organization dedicated to using evidence-based treatments for patients with substance use disorder. “As a physician who takes care of patients with opioid use disorder every day,” including people who have overdosed, she said, “I am very eager to find out what is going to become of the opioid settlement funds in this county. In fact, I have been trying for months to learn more about the process by which these funds are going to be distributed. And I haven’t gotten any answers. So I was alarmed to see that reporting yesterday that seems to indicate that the county is going to use a portion of those funds to plug a hole in the budget.”

Supervisor Glenn McGourty, chair of the Board of Supervisors, wrote in a statement that, “The $63,000 referenced in the December 2022 budget status report, was a portion of the Plaintiff Subdivision Fund, and appropriately approved for offsetting healthcare expenses, given the County has incurred damages for past harms including increased healthcare costs as a result of the opioid crisis.”

He wrote that $1,125,000 of the settlement funds received so far have been set aside in an abatement fund, “to address future remediation such as treatment programs for our community.” The other $275,000 is in the subdivision fund, which political subdivisions like cities and counties can use for purposes other than direct opioid remediation. McGourty wrote that this portion of the settlement, “provides for our direct damages, such as reimbursing past County incurred opioid related expenses and costs of bringing the litigation” against the manufacturers and distributors of opioids.

It’s not the first time money from a public health crisis has gone into the health care plan deficit.

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Last year, over $4.5 million of the county’s allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, went towards backfilling the shortfall. The Executive Office estimated it would have been over $10 million without the infusion. Another $370,000 from the same covid relief fund went towards remodeling the Board of Supervisors chambers, including a mechanical podium where members of the public stand to address the Board. The podium moves up and down to accommodate speakers of various heights.

ARPA guidelines were loose. And according to data compiled by Christine Minhee of OpioidsettlementTracker.com, only thirteen states have declared in writing that they’ll report 100% of their opioid settlement expenditures to the public.

California is not one of them. Minhee’s analysis, first shared with Kaiser Health News, shows that while many states have not committed to reporting any of their settlement expenditures, California has only committed to reporting 15%.

The state is participating in seven settlements with distributors, drug makers, and individual pharmacies. Two years ago, opioid manufacturer Janssen Pharmaceuticals and three distributors, McKesson, AmericsourceBergen, and Cardinal Health, settled over 3,000 lawsuits for $26 billion. California will get regular payments from a little over $2 billion from those settlements through the year 2038. Settlements with five other drugmakers and pharmacies are pending.

Some addiction treatment providers in Mendocino County are frustrated by the lack of transparency about how the local funds are going to be distributed. Jacque Williams is the Executive Director of the Ford Street Project, which offers residential and outpatient treatment as well as state-licensed detox therapy. She’s gotten a state grant to expand, and is applying for $4.1 million in Measure B funds to increase her offerings. She wants to understand what the strategy is going to be for community input. “Is there going to be an oversight of decision-making body or an oversight committee that ensures the implementation or approval of requests?” she asked. “This deserves a structured approach because there are several opportunities for investment of that money. And that’s going to require people who understand the broad impact within our community. I’d love to see some first responders, people from the ER’s, just educators, be our thinkers about how we get after this going forward.”

Though the opioid litigation has been wending through the courts for years, many municipalities, including Mendocino County, have not yet formulated a plan for how to distribute the funds. McGourty wrote that, “Dr. Jenine Miller, the Director of Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, and member of the National Association of Counties Opioid Solutions Leadership Network, will be working with the Board of Supervisors in the near future to determine the highest and best use of the Abatement Funds for opioid remediation activities in our County.”

Valdovinos said that, while she is “just an emergency doctor,” who doesn’t know what the details of the of a transparent process will be, “I am really looking forward to seeing what the county has planned to address this epidemic in our community, and I remain standing by to support with any guidance or feedback that they might like. I also have plenty of colleagues who also have lots of experience taking care of patients in our community with substance use disorder, and all of us are here and willing to help.”

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  1. When are people going to wake up??
    It’s time to make a stand and hold all the supervisors accountable. Why is it they can get away with using money allocated for opioid addiction for other things? Why isn’t anyone up in arms over the drug problems we have in this county and the lack of mental health help?? Why isn’t anyone up in arms over the immigrants that are being dropped off by the bus load. Why isn’t anyone up in arms over the homeless problem?? Why isn’t anyone up in arms over the fact criminals get away with murder?? Oh because to many people have their heads in the sand and don’t pay attention. They don’t look up or left and right. They look down and brush it off. It’s time people start standing and speak out! We were given a voice to use and it’s past time to use it. Speak up or watch our county decline!

  2. Two years in a row the BOS for three months each stole the funds given to them by the state for the county’s employee healthcare. That’s six months of healthcare insurance funds for over a thousand employees. The BOS has yet to reveal what they spent the millions of dollars of the employees healthcare funds on or to even admit the embezzlement from the employee healthcare fund which left it bankrupt. The taxpayers of the county are looking forward to the State of California’s audit and findings of the BOS spending of the county’s money.

  3. That’s no chump change in the settlement they got. Yet my son counted as a portion of that money. No wonder they hand them pipes to keep “accidentally overdosing” why they close a blind eye to the Regency inn being a state funded trap house. Theres been more 11/44 at that place than anywere in the county , I’m sure of it And now I’m homeless cause I lost my job because I needed time off to deal with his death while still needing to pay for his end of life services. Now I’m on the streets wanting to use to end it all and I’ve never even been and addict in my life. My life ended the day his did. I’m in outrage to hear of this settlement cause I asked the detective how much money they made in overdoses. To be chuckled at like i dont know how life works. I’ve tried 4 nine months to get my sons fingerprints cause he had a record just to be ignored and passed on still with no answers. And when i call back to ask again I end up at square 1. Nowere

    • First off I’m sorry for your loss! Second have you tried to attend one of the board meetings to voice your situation.
      My friend you have a valid reason to be there and you have a right to ask for help. I would be willing to bet there is someone in ukiah that would be willing to help you. Please ask around and don’t stop speaking up! Praying for answers for you!

  4. The Mendocino county board of supervisors should be arrested for mishandling of public funds! They have in all their financial bungling created a huge mess for the citizens of the county to have to suffer with. The whole group should be recalled and fired without delay!

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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