Sen. Gayle Harrell, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee on Health and Human Services, says she foresees fraud in the system as the state distributes opioid settlement funds. The meeting took place on Nov. 15, 2023. Screenshot from Florida Channel.
State senators want more sway over the way cities and counties spend their share of the $3.1 billion opioid settlement Florida will get for the next 17 years.
Around half of the total coming into Florida as part of the nationwide lawsuits against opioid manufacturers will go to the state. The rest will be shared among cities and counties, which can decide how they spend the money. However, the pots from which cities and counties are getting funds vary.
The ones that joined the lawsuit are getting 15% of the $3 billion through the life of the settlement, while there are two regional funds. One of those, amounting to 29% of the total, will be paid directly to counties with populations larger than 300,000. Florida Department of Children and Family services will handle the remaining 7% meant for counties with smaller populations.
But senators on the Appropriations Committee for Health and Human Services expressed worry Wednesday that an uncoordinated approach would lead to patchwork solutions throughout the state.
Officials from the Attorney General’s Office and the Florida Department of Children and Family Services presented an overview of the situation to the committee. The tranche of money coming in during the fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1 will be split as follows:
- $205.7 million for the state.
- $24 million for cities and counties that joined the settlement.
- $135.5 million given directly to counties with a population larger than 300,000.
- $33.8 million given to DCF for counties with smaller populations.
In 2018, Florida sued 11 opioid distributors and manufacturers such as CVS, Walgreens, and Johnson & Johnson. The suit alleged the companies flooded Florida’s markets with opioids and intentionally misled doctors and the public about the dangers of opioid use. The lawsuit went to trial in 2022 with all but Walgreens settling. Ultimately, Florida received eight settlements, according to the Attorney General’s office.
The Senate committee’s chair, Sen. Gayle Harrell of Martin and parts of St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties said such a large amount of money requires significant oversight and a statewide standard.
“This is something that perhaps we need to look at, to empower certain standards to be in place across the entire state so that we don’t have that patchwork of standards that can vary from county to county,” she said during the meeting.
“Since the counties are really going to be in control of so much of these dollars, we do want to make sure that there’s quality in it. There is also the ability to deal with the fraud that I foresee coming into the system,” Harrell said.
DCF presented a budget allocating the state’s share of the opioid funds toward different programs to tackle addiction. However, Harrell criticized the plan for not accounting for oversight of the qualifications of organizations that will receive money.
“There’s that lack of inspection and also lack of qualified personnel with medical experience to, really in the addiction range, do the appropriate evaluation of the services that are being rendered. I don’t see within his budget anything for that framing oversight,” she said.
Other members of the committee agreed about the need for standards for spending the money. Democratic Senate Leader Lauren Book of Broward County said opioid addiction can’t be handled without the help of law enforcement.
“When there’s a drug dealer on the corner next to a sober home, we’re setting people up for failure — to not have FTE [full-time employees] to be able to prevent those things and not have resources from law enforcement,” she said. “We can’t expect somebody who’s dealing with and living through substance abuse, trying to get on the other side, to self-report some of those things.”
Erica Floyd-Thomas, DCF’s assistant secretary for substance abuse and mental health, said counties and cities have made investments in law enforcement in their plans, but that answer didn’t satisfy Book.
“I don’t think that having a patchwork of Broward decided to do it but Brevard didn’t is an excuse that we should take. And I don’t mean excuses that you’re creating excuses. That’s not what I’m saying,” she said. “I believe that we need to create a state standard that we believe in to address these issues because we have the resources to do it.”
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