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New York rejects using opioid settlement funds on safe injection sites, advocates push back

Ashley Livingston, a member of New York's Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board, and a person in recovery.
Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo
Ashley Livingston, a member of New York's Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board, and a person in recovery.

Over a year ago, New York City was the first in the country to introduce overdose prevention centers, or OPCs. At OPCs, also known as "safe injection sites" people can use drugs under staff supervision and access needed services. The two locations in New York City report reversing over 600 overdoses so far.

But despite a recommendation from the state’s Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board, Governor Kathy Hochul’s administration has announced it will not be funding OPCs.

The Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board is meant to guide the spending of around $2 billion in settlement money.

In its annual report, the board recommended that 22% of funds go towards harm reduction measures through the state Department of Health. Harm reduction can include syringe exchange, drug testing strips and naloxone distribution. The board also suggested the state fund OPCs.

The state sent a letter earlier this month, rejecting those two proposals. It argues that current federal law prohibits expanding or funding overdose prevention centers.

“Out of the hundreds of recommendations, only two have been rejected. And those two recommendations were not accepted as currently written, based on state and federal law,” said Chinazo Cunningham, commissioner of New York’s Office of Addiction Supports and Services. She added that harm reduction was still a priority for the administration.

The advisory board met last week, the first time since the announcement. Emotions ran high during the public comment period. Staff from OnPointNYC, which runs the overdose prevention centers, expressed anger at the decision, many of them speaking through tears.

Terrell Jones works at OnPoint NYC. He said the job is a constant battle to save people from overdosing. He said he’s responded to overdoses in which the person died, because the center wasn’t open through the night.

“Why are people still dying? Why is it that every day that my team goes out, we have to deal with the devastation and trauma of the person who overdoses, and some of them are fatal. Why do I have to sit there remembering dead bodies in my dreams?” Jones said.

Members of the advisory board reacted to the rejection as well. Ashley Livingston, who is in recovery and on the board, expressed frustration with the decision.

“Governor Hochul has the authority. She has the authority and she can choose to use it, or she can choose to continue to let my friends die."