Through the end of September, Alaskans are able to provide input on how the state should use over $58 million in funds allotted through opioid company settlements.
The funds make up Alaska’s portion of a $26 billion settlement in lawsuits that found multiple drug manufacturers and distributors partially responsible for the opioid epidemic of the past 30 years.
The money, designated to combat opioid misuse and addiction, will be distributed over 18 years to nonprofits and communities in Alaska.
An advisory council formed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy has drafted a list of proposed funding uses that is now available for review by members of the public, according to an email from the state health department announcing the open comment period.
Once the proposal is approved through the legislative process, the money will be used for “opioid remediation,” which very broadly can include strategies addressing treatment, prevention, harm reduction and recovery.
When the advisory council first met over the summer to discuss how to appropriate the funds, their goal was to include tribal, rural and urban perspectives in the planning, and to have both short- and long-term goals, according to Heidi Hedberg, state director of public health.
“I really wanted to spend the first six months listening to testimonies from those with lived experience and understanding what are the existing current programs,” Hedberg said. “And then the question was, what are the gaps to address?”
Some specific suggested uses for the funds included in the draft proposal include: training and distribution of naloxone, a fast-acting overdose reversal drug; increased access to medication-assisted treatment; support for people in recovery; more social workers; more treatment options in jails; media campaigns to prevent opioid use; trainings for first responders; drug education in schools; and syringe service programs.
Special emphasis should be given to help more vulnerable communities, including those who are incarcerated, uninsured or underinsured, in recovery or pregnant, the proposal said.
“Using these guidelines, I think, is really going to have a really powerful impact on being able to turn the tide and be able to really reduce opioid use,” said Michael Carson, vice president and recovery specialist at MyHouse of Mat-Su and chair of the Mat-Su Opioid Task Force.
Carson said in an interview that he was particularly glad to see so many prevention-based strategies on the list of possible uses for the funds.
“I think (prevention) gives us, in short, the biggest bang for our buck, so to speak,” he said. “That’s where we need to go: upstream primary prevention and drug education.”
The funds come at a moment when Alaska is currently experiencing an alarmingly high rate of overdose-related deaths that have been mostly attributed to fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid that can be deadly even when consumed in small amounts.
In 2021, 253 people died from drug overdoses in Alaska — marking the largest percentage increase in overdose deaths of any state in the United States.
With the settlement money, the short-term goal is to “get the funding to communities that have nonprofits and that are working to address substance misuse,” Hedberg said.
Next steps include finding ways to address general impacts of the opioid epidemic and find ways to prevent and educate, and to support people in recovery.
“I think that we need to remember that it’s going to take years to address this opioid epidemic,” Hedberg said.
“We really want to have that feedback from the public,” Hedberg said.
Alaskans can also send emailed comments to Jenny Weisshaupt, a health planner with the state, at Jennifer.email@example.com, or by mail at Alaska Mental Health Board/Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse c/o Jenny Weisshaupt, P.O. Box 110608, Juneau, AK 99811-0608.
All comments must be received by 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30.