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North central Florida counties are seeking to join the state's opioid settlement 

This photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)
This photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)

North central Florida communities are hoping to see financial relief within the next year through settlement funds in the largest opioid-related legal case in U.S history.

Several counties in the region have told the state they want a share of funds dispersed in a national lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies responsible for producing, distributing and advertising opioids.

Those counties include Alachua, Marion, Gilchrist, Hernando, Levy and Putnam.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is negotiating a related memorandum of understanding with county and municipal governments statewide. The agreement would ultimately decide the distribution of the proceeds from the litigation against the companies.

The litigation lists 2,600 cities, counties, and individuals as plaintiffs seeking compensation from Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and other opioid-related companies found responsible for the prescription painkillers. The legal case asserts that the companies have played a role in accelerating the nationwide opioid crisis and reaped resulting financial benefits.

Moody has said Florida could get as much as 7% of the settlement funds over 18 years, or the second largest share of compensation nationally. That could mean $1.3 billion for the state.

Levy County commissioners recently approved their resolution.

During the commission meeting, interim assistant county attorney Evan Rosenthal said while exact figures aren’t known yet, Levy County could increase the amount of money it would receive by joining along with the state, rather than pursuing a settlement on its own.

Alachua County signed a resolution a week before Levy after waiting to see if requirements for county funding, including population figures, would change.

“We held out for a long time before we finally made this decision because we were hoping that threshold of 300,000 would come down, because we’re just under that,” said Mark Sexton, communications and legislative affairs director for Alachua County.

The deal with the state requires those counties receiving funds to use them toward treatment programs, research and training, among other possible uses.

Alachua wants to build a central receiving facility to help reduce the number of people going to jail when they more likely just need help dealing with substance abuse, Sexton said.

“The sad thing about how a lot of mental health services are administered in the United States is jails are the primary institutions that are dealing with these issues,” he said.

Sexton said funds would also go to Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, the main treatment program for mental health and substance abuse in Alachua County.

Joy Riddle, senior vice president of communications at Meridian, said the number of patients treated for opioid-use disorders has increased by 28 percent, to 1,330 people, from September 2019, when it helped 1,040.

“We’re talking about six to eight new intakes every week for opioid addiction,” Riddle said.

The increased number of overdoses has been even more so statewide, according to the most recent Medical Examiners Commission drug report. In 2020, 3,034 opioid-caused deaths were reported across the state – a 51% increase from 2019, the report revealed.

While north central Florida has not been impacted as much as other areas, there was a 49% increase in opioid presence during deaths, up to 85 in 2020 from 57 in 2019.

Kendall Cortelyou, director of data analytics and strategy for Project Opioid, said the opioid crisis is morphing into a new concern about another serious drug.

“Fentanyl has made its way through the drug supply; it’s really spiked all of the drugs,” said Cortelyou, whose organization focuses on empowering government, business and faith leaders with information about the opioid crisis and how to best serve their communities.

“As I talk to my connections around the state … it’s cocaine and fentanyl, time and time again,” she said.

Narcan is the main tool that Project Opioid is trying to get into the hands of Florida residents. It is a fast-acting nasal spray that can reverse life-threatening symptoms of an opioid overdose.

“I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Narcan is a total game changer,” Cortelyou said.

She also said the opioid settlement is a prime opportunity to solve this issue.

“The idea is that this money is earmarked and can’t be used for infrastructure, so it can’t be used to build roads, it can’t be used to build bridges,” Cortelyou said. “It has to be used to help people who have struggled with opioids or who have a family member who has died.”

Arlette is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.