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Wilmington could see millions to combat opioid epidemic. Where will the money go? -

Wilmington-area counties could receive millions to treat and prevent addiction thanks to a settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Prescription opioid manufacturer Johnson Johnson and three major distributors - Amerisource Bergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson - have agreed to pay out $26 billion total as part of the settlement and to improve the safety and oversight of their distribution.

The agreement would provide about $850 million to North Carolina, 80% of which will go to local governments to implement strategies to address the opioid epidemic.

If the state is awarded its maximum funding allocation, New Hanover could receive more than $20 million, Brunswick County would get more than $15 million, and Pender County would receive more than $4 million.

"As rich as our community is, we've been so poor when it comes to providing avenues for treatment for individuals with substance abuse disorder," New Hanover Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. said.

"I'm excited we were one of the first communities in our state to sign off on this lawsuit and that our citizens will benefit directly from some of these proceeds."

In order to receive its maximum allocation, all counties in North Carolina must sign on to the settlement agreements. Counties that sign on will receive additional incentive funding, making up 5% of the state's total.

The final 15% will be appropriated by the General Assembly toward strategies to address the epidemic.

Barfield said the funding would be instrumental in the ongoing effort to combat the epidemic in New Hanover County, which in 2016 led counties in opioid abuse. Four others in North Carolina ranked in the nation's top 25.

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Since then efforts have been made to address the crisis, including a Quick Response Team and the building of The Healing Place, a free 200-bed peer-led treatment center scheduled to open next year.

However New Hanover and Brunswick counties are still ranked 'high' in opioid deaths compared to other counties in the state, according Department of Health and Human Services.

New Hanover had its deadliest year in two decades with 32 opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 residents last year. In Brunswick County, since 2018 opioid overdose deaths have increased from 19 to 24 deaths per 100,000 residents, higher than the state average. 

Brunswick County Commissioner Mike Cooke said providing programs and resources for people struggling with addiction is key to recovering from the epidemic.

"If you give an individual a way out and give them an opportunity to change their life, that's huge," Cooke said. "In my case, I've known quite a few people who have overdosed and died. And there are people that I've known that were on drugs who got off drugs."

According to Cooke the funding will help offset the costs the county has incurred in fighting the growing epidemic - from costs to the court system to police and emergency medical services.

The agreement outlines two paths for local governments to use the funds, both with restrictions on what the money can be used for.

Under the first option, governments can choose from a list of "evidence-based, high-impact strategies" to fund, which includes: 

  • Collaborative strategic planning
  • Evidence-based addiction treatment 
  • Recovery support services 
  • Recovery housing support 
  • Employment-related services
  • Early intervention programs
  • Naloxone distribution
  • Post-overdose response teams
  • Syringe service programs
  • Criminal justice diversion programs
  • Addiction treatment for incarcerated persons
  • Reentry programs for recently incarcerated persons

If a local government engages in a "collaborative strategic planning process," they may choose to use the funding to:

  • Treat Opioid Use Disorder (OUD)
  • Support people in treatment and recovery
  • Provide connections to care
  • Address the needs of criminal-justice-involved persons with OUD
  • Address the needs of pregnant or parenting women and their families
  • Prevent over-prescribing of opioids
  • Prevent misuse of opioids
  • Prevent overdose deaths and other harms (harm reduction)
  • Support first responders
  • Promote leadership, planning, and coordination
  • Fund relevant training and research

Local governments have through January 2, 2022, to join the settlement agreements and could see funding by April 2022.

Reporter John Orona can be reached at 910-343-2327 or [email protected]