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Will Tech Factor into States’ Opioid Settlement Plans?

Various experts have suggested that states should spend opioid settlement dollars on data-focused technology. So far, states have been quiet on possible tech investments, citing other steps that must be taken first.

Opioid pills in front of blurred pill bottle.
The $26 billion opioid settlement between four pharmaceutical companies and 42 states is moving forward. But how states might spend the money on technology that can help combat the opioid crisis remains anyone’s guess.

Multiple groups of experts have outlined how opioid settlement dollars might go toward tech solutions. A Johns Hopkins report indicates that states should use the money to beef up their health departments’ ability “to collect data and evaluate policies, programs, and strategies designed to address substance use,” noting that data collection is particularly important for addressing minority population needs.

A white paper from Harvard suggests drug-checking technology represents a simple way of “allowing individuals to check for contaminants in the drug supply,” which can drive down the number of overdoses and deaths. But legislation or new policies might be necessary depending on the state.

“[M]any states have anti-drug checking laws that prohibit the distribution of testing strips or other more advanced drug checking technologies, like infrared spectrometers or mass spectrometers,” the white paper explains.

According to an Arnold Ventures guide, states’ data infrastructure should be a target for settlement money. The guide’s three specific data recommendations are to collect state-level data on a regular basis with a dedicated team; use existing systems to capture more information; and develop new systems that can provide greater detail on factors such as pill drop-off sites and non-government harm-reduction services.

Robert Pack, a professor and associate dean who directs the Addiction Science Center at East Tennessee State University, chaired a panel that produced an Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) report that shares recommendations on how to respond to the opioid crisis. The report is one of many compiled by Johns Hopkins to help government leaders.

However, Pack expressed concern that the research is either being missed or ignored. He shared one telling anecdote: An attorney general who knows Pack had no idea the ASPPH recommendations even existed.

“No matter how much press Hopkins puts out, no matter what the federal government says, people just don’t know that these things are out there,” Pack said.

Government Technology reached out to a number of states for details on any particular tech solutions that settlement dollars could go toward. Douglas Huntsinger, executive director for drug prevention, treatment and enforcement for Indiana, provided a technical overview about laws and processes that will guide spending in Indiana.

“Funds will be distributed, as outlined by IC 4-6-15-4, to the state, local subdivisions that remain opted into the settlement fund, and eligible community-based treatment, education and prevention programs for opioid use disorder and any co-occurring substance use disorder or mental health issues as defined or required by the settlement documents or court order,” Huntsinger said via email. “Local subdivisions will have a large role in determining how their funds are spent, and the State of Indiana will work with them as they navigate the distribution process. These funds will be critical as we look to build bridges throughout our existing substance use disorder treatment infrastructure.”

Charla Haley, public information officer for the Utah Department of Health, indicated that everything related to the settlement dollars is “in very preliminary stages” and that her department doesn’t have “anyone available who can speak to what might happen” in relation to tech-related spending.

“No specific planning, recommendations, or decisions have been made yet in Utah,” Haley said. “Once the state has a better understanding of the settlement and how it factors in with local entities who are also pursuing settlements, we will convene an advisory group to make recommendations on the best way to use the funds.”

Haley’s point about the involvement of local areas is relevant, especially in light of a recent story about Texas trying to get more local areas to become part of the $26 billion settlement so that the state can receive more settlement money. Some local areas in the states may choose to pursue their own settlements in separate legal proceedings.

Michelle Williams, chief of staff for Mississippi’s attorney general, said Mississippi is still assessing the situation with the settlement dollars.

“It’s really too early to say anything, because we’re still evaluating. We haven’t even completed all the steps of the settlement as required,” said Williams, later adding that the evaluation will involve talking to the state Legislature, which won’t be in session until January.

As for tech’s ideal role in the ongoing fight against opioids, Pack said it’s “easy” in his mind.

“I would start by bringing together government technological assets ... and all these places that have data warehouses, but they don’t talk to each other, [I would] push them all together,” Pack said. “I would begin to model out the problem with hospital records and social determinants and use data science principles to identify places for interventions and perhaps even novel interventions.”
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.