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State advocates and lawmakers strategize ways to use settlement money to combat opioid crisis in Utah

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Some state advocates say the money from the opioid settlement funds could assist with staffing at substance abuse programs.

Utah lawmakers and community service providers met on Monday to strategize ways to allocate funds from the Opioid Litigation Settlement Restriction account. It receives money from settlements related to opioid lawsuits.

Last year, Utah received $309,114,000 from the settlement, which is expected to be paid over the next 18 years. So far, the state has already received $5.5 million from another settlement.

Though some advocates are still discussing how the money should be spent, everyone was on the same page: the funds would go into addressing the opioid crisis in the state. From June 2020-2021, Utah saw a 19% jump in the total of drug overdose-related deaths, which included opioids.

David Litvack, deputy director of the state’s Department of Human Services, said they're working with the attorney general’s office to draft a blueprint of priorities for distributing the funds.

“It is a lot of money, but it's not a lot of money when we consider the impact that opioids have had on our community,” Litvack said. “We really have a tremendous chance and a rare opportunity to have a significant impact if we are thoughtful, strategic, in how those dollars are allocated.”

He alluded to Colorado's plan for the allocation of funds as a potential guide to model after.

Adam Cohen, chief executive officer of Odyssey House, said he’d like to see these funds spent to support the public behavioral health system, expand access to underserved groups and provide more educational opportunities for therapists to specialize in dealing with substance abuse.

He said Odyssey House has been struggling with staff retention and recruitment and could also use some of the funding.

“Across the system we're experiencing a 20% vacancy rate,” Cohen said. “Wages for all levels of staffers have increased exponentially over time. For mass level therapists we're competing with private practice providers who only serve [commercially] funded patients and hospital systems. In many cases, therapists are getting recruited for 30-50% more than what we can offer.”

He said the consequence of these staffing issues are causing some providers to close programs at a time when demand for services is at an all-time high. Cohen pointed to Odyssey House, where they have about 300 single residential beds and haven’t been able to use 50 of them due to staffing shortages.

“We have waiting lists around the block to get into treatment,” he said. “So it really means no access to care or less access to care and a shrink of the system.”

Litvack said they plan to have a draft of the blueprint in the coming days.

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