Essay/Tom O'Mara: Two needed keys; -- Opioid Settlement Fund, local decision-making

N.Y. State Senator Tom O'Mara

Opioid Settlement Fund will make a difference in this ongoing crisis

One of the key actions of this year’s legislative session will create an “Opioid Settlement Fund” that will ensure that opioid lawsuit settlement funds received by New York State will be dedicated to opioid prevention, treatment, and recovery programs and services.

It is a piece of legislation that I was proud to co-sponsor, help support throughout the legislative process, and ultimately vote in favor of.

N.Y. State Senator Tom O'Mara

Specifically, the legislation (S7194/A6395) states that “all funds received by the state as the result of a settlement or a judgment in litigation against opioid manufacturers, distributors, dispensers, consultants, or resellers shall be deposited into the opioid settlement fund, and that such funds shall not supplant or replace existing state funding.”

In other words, this legislation, in this instance, puts a stop to the long-standing and, in my view, questionable practice of the Governor taking settlement funds and dumping them into the state’s general fund to be used for any purpose at all.

What we’re saying here is: Not this time. Not when the opioid abuse epidemic that has been ravaging families and communities throughout the past decade – and has cost thousands of lives – continues to demand resources for education and prevention, treatment and recovery. Not when statistics show that between 2010 and 2017, opioid overdose deaths increased by 200% in New York State.

The legislation was approved unanimously by the Senate and Assembly. It must be signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Counties all across this state, including right here at home in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions, have been on the front lines of battling this epidemic.

Upon the legislation’s approval, the Executive Director of the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC), Stephen Acquario, said that it “marks a major turning point in the battle against the opioid epidemic that has been raging through our state and nation, leaving a trail of death, destruction, and heartache, long before the emergence of COVID-19. This legislation will pave the way to begin the process of healing and recovery by ensuring that any funds received by the state are used to support drug treatment and prevention efforts.”

He went on to rightly commend “counties for their dogged determination to bring these cases forward in search of justice and resources to set their communities on the path to recovery.”

State Attorney General Letitia James, who has helped spearhead the effort to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors accountable, said, “While no amount of money will ever compensate for the thousands who lost their lives or became addicted to opioids across our state, or provide solace to the countless families torn apart by this crisis, this bill ensures funds are used to prevent any future devastation.”

New York State has gained and stands to gain millions upon millions of dollars in opioid settlement funds, with the nation’s most extensive lawsuit just getting underway against Purdue Pharma and other large opioid manufacturers and distributors — and it’s only right that any settlement funds go to provide and expand prevention, education, and treatment programs.

The legislation’s Senate sponsor, Senator Gustavo Rivera, added, “New York State, like much of the country, has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic … Unfortunately, programs that address the needs of individuals who use drugs, including those providing prevention, harm reduction, mental health, substance use disorder treatment, and housing, have been struggling for years from budget cuts and increased costs. The Opioid Settlement Fund established by this bill will ensure that the monies obtained from pending lawsuits and enforcement actions, filed against those corporations that financially benefited from our country’s opioid epidemic, are rightfully dedicated towards substance use disorder prevention, treatment, recovery, and harm reduction services.”

As far back as 2014, as member of the Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, I helped conduct regional forums, including in Elmira and Penn Yan, on the burgeoning heroin and opioid crisis. In a series of 14 roundtable discussions held throughout the state, we heard directly from law enforcement, drug addiction counselors, treatment providers, social services and mental health professionals, and other experts — as well as recovering addicts and family members who lost a son or a daughter or a grandchild or another loved one — about the complex range of challenges our communities were facing and how best to address them.

Without fail, even then, it became clear that there was a lack of education and prevention, treatment and recovery programs and services. The Opioid Settlement Fund would truly begin to provide badly needed resources.

Local decision-making key to recovery

The end of the State of Emergency is what we all have been waiting, working, and sacrificing toward. It has been clear throughout the past 15 months that communities here in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions, and across New York State, could not have kept moving forward throughout this pandemic without the perseverance, sacrifice, and undeniable strength of frontline workers, essential employees and volunteers in health care, agriculture, businesses large and small, law enforcement and public safety, education, community and social services, and so many other fields.

Our gratitude to frontline heroes cannot be measured and their example will continue to show the way to a better and stronger future. We have demonstrated that by working together, pulling for each other, and staying informed, our communities will always be resilient and, in the face of whatever comes our way, never lose hope in recovering.

That will be the case here. The work of rebuilding and getting our communities back on solid ground again begins in earnest now. Most importantly, it needs to be delivered through local decision-making.  One of the key lessons learned from the COVID-19 emergency is that state and local decision-making cannot be left indefinitely in the hands of one branch of government that will impose a one-size-fits-all, across-the-board response.

I truly hope that the state Legislature reengages in its constitutional role of checks and balances on the Executive. Governor Cuomo's unilateral, dictatorial emergency powers continued for far too long unfettered by legislative approvals or oversight.  His abuse of these emergency powers devastated our Upstate economy and, in fact, New York State now languishes behind every other state in the nation on economic recovery since the pandemic. Further, New York continues to lead the country in unemployment. The Governor and the legislature's Democrat Majorities that allowed his unilateral powers to remain in place for far too long are largely to blame for New York's floundering economy. Much work needs to be done, and quickly, to kick-start the state's economy and get people back to work.

The Legislature must return from its recess to immediately take up a pro-jobs and pro-business package to get the state’s economy on its feet.

New York State Senator Tom O'Mara represents the 58th District, which includes Yates, Steuben, Schuyler and Chemung counties and a portion of Tompkins County.