Johnson County joins national opioid settlement to receive funds to address epidemic

Johnson County has recently entered into the Kansas Opioid Memorandum of Understanding after previously pursuing separate litigation against the pharmaceutical industry for perpetuating the opioid epidemic. The county has spent resources addressing this form of substance abuse through the criminal justice system, emergency services, mental health services and drug treatment programs.

During a December Board of County Commissioners meeting, the board unanimously voted to support the move that will allow the county to participate in multi-national settlements that are expected to make available millions of dollars in funding to the county.

The change in approach coincides with a recent spike in opioid-related overdose deaths in the county. Johnson County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Diane Peterson says these deaths are primarily attributed to the illicit opioid fentanyl – a non-pharmaceutical-created opioid. The total occurrences of an opiate being listed as the cause of death in 2021, through the Johnson County Medical Examiner’s Office, was 86. In 2019, it was 34.

“Since late 2020, we’ve seen a large increase in the times an opiate was involved in a death,” said. Dr. Peterson. “Most of the individuals who are dying have more than one opiate in their system. It’s not just fentanyl. It’s not just oxycodone. They’re combining it with other drugs, such as benzodiazepines, like alprazolam or Xanax. It doesn’t take much fentanyl to kill you. It takes even less acetyl fentanyl.”

Dr. Peterson says this epidemic impacts a wide range of ages, but primarily men.

Although jurisdictions across the country are party to litigation and settlements, this MOU is expected to give the county the best possible chance of maximizing settlement funds to address the effects of this crisis. 

Funds will be distributed through the Kansas Attorney General’s Office’s Kansas Fights Addiction Fund and the Municipalities Fight Addiction Fund. Deputy County Manager Maury Thompson says settlement dollars could be distributed to Johnson County as early as this spring.

“The board agreed to enter into litigation to hold those accountable for this action and the increased costs that as a local county government we’ve seen,” said Thompson. “Those settlements are starting to come to fruition. There will be some direct reimbursement to counties, and there will be a statewide grant program established that Johnson County will have full access to make application to for those resources as well.”

The additional resources to address the epidemic can’t come soon enough, as the county continues to fight this epidemic. Johnson County Mental Health Center Division Director of Clinical Services Deb Stidham says the highly addictive nature of opioids can take hold and lead to grave consequences for individuals using these substances and their loved ones.

“There’s just a strong potential for addiction,” said Stidham. “Between the fact that opiates are already such a powerful drug, and then you add fentanyl, it’s really just not a great combination. Plus, we’re seeing this synthetic fentanyl being intertwined with other drugs. It can be anything these kids and adults are taking, and sometimes they don’t know.”

Stidham says in the beginning of the opioid epidemic, prescription painkillers, such as Oxycontin, were over prescribed and there was extensive addiction. Physician education improved those circumstances, but then the trend evolved into heroin addiction. And now fentanyl and the synthetic opiates dominate the epidemic. 

JCMHC offers mental health and co-occurring substance use disorder treatments for youth and adults. Stidham urges those suffering from substance use disorder to get help. Visit the JCMHC webpage to get connected with resources. Family resources are also available.

Learn more about the opioid epidemic and settlement by listening to the latest JoCo on the Go podcast, which includes Dr. Peterson, Thompson and Stidham. The podcast is also available as a webcast. Feel free to use soundbites/quotes from the episode.

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