The first wave of funding from multibillion dollar settlements with the opioid industry will go toward expanding treatment programs, increasing the availability of supportive housing for people with substance use disorders, reversing racial disparities in overdose deaths and providing relief for families devastated by the unrelenting opioid epidemic, according to a plan unveiled Friday by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston Public Health Commission.
The new strategies include the creation of a “Family Overdose Support Fund,” which will provide financial support to Boston families who have lost a loved one to an opioid overdose. The fund will launch later this year with $250,000 to cover child care, funeral expenses, legal services, and other financial burdens faced by those with firsthand experience with the deadly scourge.
“The grief and trauma of losing a loved one to overdose has a lasting impact on our communities,” Wu said in a written statement. “This fund will help support our families and our communities by easing the financial burdens that undermine a healthy grieving process.”
The announcement culminates months of planning and deliberation by the Boston Public Health Commission, and comes as local and state governments nationwide struggle to reverse year after year of rising overdose fatalities. So far, Boston has collected $6 million through legal settlements from opioid manufacturers and distributors — the most of any municipality in the state. Yet like many cities and towns across Massachusetts, Boston has not spent any of the money as it has grappled with how to address the public health disaster.
Apart from the new fund, the city did not lay out specific spending amounts for the other proposed investments.
Boston, which ultimately expects to receive $22 million through 2038 from the legal settlements, has taken a deliberative approach to deploying the settlement funds, first seeking input directly from Boston residents and those directly affected by the overdose crisis. Since last summer, the commission has collected more than 400 submissions from an online survey and held eight listening sessions around Boston with more than 200 participants. A majority of respondents wanted to prioritize the needs of grieving families by providing direct financial support, the health commission said.
“There is an overwhelming need to hold these drug manufacturers accountable,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “And I think that, if allocated appropriately, these funds could help right tragic wrongs, they could save lives, and ... mitigate some of those ongoing harms.”
Massachusetts expects to receive almost $1 billion over 18 years from settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors sued for their roles in the nation’s staggering toll of overdoses, which remain near record highs and claimed more than 2,300 lives in Massachusetts in 2022.
Forty percent of the money is being distributed among municipalities, with the dollar amount based on such factors as the number of opioid-related deaths and the amount of opioids flowing into that community, calculated by population. The remaining 60 percent is being deposited into the statewide Opioid Recovery and Remediation Fund, overseen by the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
Under an agreement, cities and towns that receive the settlement money must spend it on substance abuse prevention, treatment, recovery programs, support for pregnant women with opioid use disorder, as well as harm-reduction strategies that seek to reduce a drug user’s risk of getting sick or dying, among other strategies.
Massachusetts is slated to receive another $90 million under a separate 2021 settlement deal with Purdue Pharma, producer of OxyContin; but that deal has been held up as the US Supreme Court weighs whether the company’s former owners, the wealthy Sackler family, can be shielded from civil lawsuits under the terms of its bankruptcy deal.
In 2022, 352 people died from opioid overdoses in Boston, up nearly 7 percent from the previous year and more than quadruple the number from a decade ago. From 2019 to 2022, Boston experienced a 36 percent increase in opioid related deaths, more than twice the statewide rate of increase (16 percent) over the same time period. The crisis is disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic people: Overdose fatalities among Black residents of Boston soared by 29 percent last year, according to state data.
The increase in overdose deaths has been propelled by the increasingly toxic illicit drug supply, the proliferation of the cheap and highly potent opioid fentanyl, which is deadly even in tiny amounts, and the mixing of opioids with stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine.
“One of the reasons that it took us a long time ... to do this community engagement process is that we wanted to make sure that we were inclusive of communities that have been disproportionately impacted and sometimes left out,” Ojikutu said. “All of these things have made it so incredibly important that we also acknowledge their desires and needs.”