NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County was the first of 76 North Carolina counties to file suit four years ago, alongside state Attorney General Josh Stein, against major pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors for their roles in fueling the nationwide opioid crisis.
The county has been invested in the opioid litigation from the start. Its overdose death rate, 39.7 per 100,000 residents, is higher than the state average, which is 28.4 per 100,000 residents. Ninety-three county residents died from overdoses in 2020 alone.
More than 3,000 lawsuits from nearly every state were combined into multi-district litigation, which resulted in a $26-billion settlement agreement in July 2021. On Jan. 10, Stein, the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, and the North Carolina League of Municipalities announced all 100 counties and the 45 largest municipalities in N.C. signed the national settlement with Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen.
Settlement funds will be distributed to all 50 states, and North Carolina is slated to receive nearly $750 million to use toward opioid remediation.
“This money will give us a real, fighting chance to get help now for the North Carolinians who need it,” Stein said in a press release.
New Hanover County will receive roughly $18 million from the settlement, the sixth-largest amount behind only Franklin, Gates, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Wake counties. The City of Wilmington is projected to accept $769,823. Brunswick County could acquire around $13.7 million, and Pender County is expected to get roughly $3.8 million.
“A plan [for the money] has not been put together yet, but the county will work with the city and community partners to identify the needs and gaps in services, then develop programs, initiatives and solutions that help people who are struggling with opioid abuse,” county spokesperson Jessica Loeper said.
In April 2021, commissioner chair Julia Olson-Boseman released a statement expressing the county’s commitment to deploying the settlement funds effectively.
“From 2019 to 2020, opioid overdoses increased by 50 percent in that year alone,” Olson-Boseman said in the release. “Nothing can bring back the people we have lost, the families that have been torn apart by addiction, or the burden that has been born because of the opioid epidemic. But we will work tirelessly to emerge from this with better resources, greater access to treatment and recovery, and more tools to prevent overdoses and save lives.”
County manager Chris Coudriet is a member of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners’ opioid settlement working group, known as the 555 committee (consisting of five commissioners, five county managers and five county attorneys). This committee has been collaborating with the Department of Justice since March 2020 on a distribution model for the settlement funds.
All N.C. counties must sign a N.C. Memorandum of Agreement by Feb. 1 to receive their share. Under this agreement, the state would receive 15% of the settlement money and 80% would be dispersed to local governments. New Hanover County is among the 89 counties that have already signed.
Money will be allocated to local governments over an 18-year period based on population and the severity of the opioid crisis locally. Leadership will be required to deposit opioid settlement funds in a special revenue account to ensure it’s managed separately.
Funds from these settlements should be available starting this year to support treatment, recovery, harm reduction and life-saving programs and services. Local governments are required to file financial reports and information regarding their created programs and services on an annual basis.
New Hanover County — among the highest-ranked counties for unintentional overdose deaths, illicit opioid involvement and overdose reversals with naloxone — has taken efforts to battle the epidemic by funding the $24-million construction of The Healing Place, a peer-led, no-cost treatment facility set to open this year.
As part of the county’s budget, it has also put about $265,000 since 2018 toward noncounty agency programs that serve people suffering from substance abuse and addiction and allocated $946,000 to Tides, a nonprofit providing evidence-based treatment to women with opioid use disorder who are pregnant, anticipating pregnancy or postpartum.
In 2016, the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed locally exceeded the total county population, equaling 1.3 opioid prescriptions per person, according to a county press release.
People who are struggling with addiction are encouraged to visit the New Hanover County Public Health Department’s online opioid resource page, created in 2018.
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