It was supposed to be a victory lap of sorts for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. And, to a certain extent, it was.
But even at a Tuesday news conference where Healey, who is running for governor, highlighted $525 million in funds secured to fight the ongoing opioid epidemic, including $22 million for Boston, there were underlying points of division regarding the best approach to tackling the ongoing public health emergency, underscoring the political complexities of the problem.
Specifically, among the local luminaries to accompany Healey on the Boston City Hall stage was Mayor Thomas P. Koch of Quincy — who, along with other officials from his city, has consistently and vehemently blocked Boston’s efforts to regain bridge access to Long Island, which once held the promise of being a key element in Boston’s approach to dealing with the crisis.
Quincy has opposed Boston’s efforts to reopen the bridge to Long Island to develop a recovery campus there. Legal challenges from Quincy officials have stalled rebuilding the structure, which was abruptly closed for safety reasons in 2014, because it would route car and truck traffic through Quincy to get to the bridge site and the Boston-owned island. Rebuilding the bridge has sparked opposition in Quincy, particularly in the Squantum neighborhood, where officials said there are traffic concerns.
The island once housed a recovery campus, until the bridge connecting it to the mainland was shut down and later demolished because of structural concerns. The closure, which forced the city into a yearslong scramble to identify new housing and treatment programs, is seen as a key driver for the worsening homelessness and addiction crisis in the area known as Mass. and Cass.
That part of Boston, near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, has become synonymous with the opioid crisis in the state, and conditions there have steadily deteriorated in the years since the bridge closed.
In January, city crews cleared a large homeless encampment there, connecting scores of people who were living in the ramshackle shelters with housing and treatment programs. But the area continues to be an open-air illicit drug market. One recent morning, more than 15 people could be seen plunging needles into their veins on Atkinson Street within a one-minute window.
On Tuesday, Koch, standing a little more than 2 miles away from Mass. and Cass, said he still has a disagreement with Boston over access to the island.
At first Koch demurred when asked if Quincy had plans to cease fighting a bridge rebuild, saying he was interested in “identifying resources” to fight the opioid problem.
In a press scrum after the meeting, Koch said he did not view “a $200 million bridge as a solution to a problem,” and he suggested using a ferry service to and from the island would be more economical.
“The issue is greater than Long Island; I think the solve is greater than Long Island,” he said.
He said he has yet to speak with Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston since she was elected in November but anticipates discussing the opioid crisis, among a host of other matters, in the coming weeks. In January, Wu took a boat ride to Long Island to explore the possibility of rebuilding a more long-term recovery campus for people in mental health and substance abuse treatment.
On Tuesday, Koch said Quincy wants “to be neighborly.”
“I don’t take a back seat to anybody on the issue of opiate substance abuse,” Koch said.
His comments came after a news conference where leaders emphasized regional cooperation in combatting the local scourge of hard drugs, with Healey noting the complex thicket of issues at Mass. and Cass, but adding that communities throughout the state are facing similar problems.
“All of us collectively will look for opportunities to engage in partnership and collaboration,” said Healey.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller of Newton had similar sentiments, saying the funding will help communities bolster services addressing hard drug use, homelessness, and mental health problems. She acknowledged that the people who have lived at Mass. and Cass have families from all over the state.
“We look forward to helping the families and that would mean helping people who perhaps have been living at Mass. and Cass,” she said.
But regionalizing the Mass. and Cass problem has met significant pushback. Last year, for instance, Revere authorities objected to then-Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s plan to move homeless people from Boston to 30 rooms in a Revere hotel.
Healey said it is important that settlement funds are being directed statewide. The $525 million bucket of money is a part of a $26 billion resolution reached with large drug companies that manufactured or marketed opioids. About $210 million will be distributed directly to municipalities in the state, while more than $310 million will go into a statewide opioid recovery and remediation fund to ensure that funds are spent on harm reduction, treatment, and prevention.
The funds will be distributed over the next 18 years starting this spring. The payments are expected to be made on an annual basis.
Healey’s office said the settlements are the product of “an investigation that found that three major opioid distributors shipped thousands of suspicious orders without regard for their legitimacy.” The investigation also found that Johnson & Johnson misled patients and doctors about their addictive nature, the office said.
Wu praised the $22 million share Boston will receive as part of the settlement.
“Every dollar has been making a big difference,” said Wu.