The Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board will get to recommend how to spend every dollar the state has so far received in opioid settlement money, according to Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, commissioner of the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS).
The issue had become a point of contention between the Hochul administration and the board when it learned during a June meeting that over $200 million in settlement funds had already been allocated in the 2022-23 state budget without the board’s input.
That allocation left only $45 million in settlement money to the discretion of the board. None of the money has been spent.
In an exclusive interview, the OASAS commissioner told Capital Tonight that all the money will now go through the board’s recommendation process.
“We actually are not limiting the board from making recommendations only on that ($45 million) pot of money," Cunningham said. “We are looking for the board to make recommendations on all the dollars.”
According to Cunningham, the reason behind the allocations is that the administration and the legislature wanted to make sure that the state could spend money in the current fiscal year.
“We all know that the overdose crisis is the worst it’s ever been and we can’t afford to wait even another year to spend these dollars,” Cunningham explained. “So we had to make sure that these dollars were appropriated for this fiscal year.”
She continued. “The board is there to provide recommendations, and we would absolutely take (its) recommendations into consideration.”
The creation of the Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board came about during the tenure of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In 2021, the legislature was concerned that the billions of dollars the state was due in opioid settlement money would disappear into the state’s general fund, rather than directly help fund addiction treatment and prevention services.
To illustrate their concerns, advocates pointed to the billions of dollars in tobacco settlement money that had been folded into the general fund, rather than spent on smoking prevention and education.
To prevent that from happening, the legislature, with the help of Attorney General Letitia James, created what became a 21-member board that would make recommendations to the state before any of the money was allocated.
But the Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board, which was originally supposed to convene in November of 2021, didn’t meet until June of 2022, and by then, the state had already earmarked millions of dollars of settlement money without the board’s knowledge or guidance.
Several board members, including Avi Israel of “Save the Michaels of the World,” told Capital Tonight they were deeply unhappy with what they saw as an end-run around the board’s purpose.
When Israel, whose son committed suicide after years of battling addiction, heard the board would, after all, be making recommendations regarding all settlement funding, he seemed tentative.
“What I would like is for the state and every commissioner to take this board and this disease seriously,” he said. “Up until now, they haven’t shown that they take it in a serious manner. Action speaks louder than words, and so far, what we’ve heard from the commissioner and the governor is nothing but words.”
Israel said he would feel more optimistic if Cunningham herself told the settlement board of her decision at the next meeting and gave board members “assurances that this is going to happen.”
Meanwhile, the board has some powerful allies in the legislature.
Sen. Pete Harckham, the chair of the Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, sent a letter in support of the board’s mission to the Office of Management & Budget several weeks ago at the urging of settlement board members and advocates.
“The whole purpose of the board was for new voices to have a say in how we provide care in New York and hopefully change the way we care to get some fresh ideas. It was really a novel concept to have citizens participate in the budget process,” Harckham told Capital Tonight. “(But) they felt as a group that they were not respected., that they were not given the opportunity to weigh in.”
According to Harckham, after conversations with OASAS and the Hochul administration, as well as board members, there was an agreement to “reset” how they all worked together.
“There are some growing pains. I think they’re going to… need to work out how they will work together as a board. But I think the administration and the agencies need to realize this is not just some sort of bureaucratic group they can just kind of, you know, walk roughshod over. But rather, these are people who have a lot of skin in the game. They’ve lost loved ones to the opioid crisis. It’s a work in progress,” Harckham said.
Cunningham agreed that a reset is needed.
“I think it’s been a little rocky, but I think really, we’re all in this to help save the lives of New Yorkers. All of us. Everybody who is part of the board and OASAS,” she said.