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Bill To Create Opioid Settlement Locked Box Awaits Cuomo's Signature

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at his offices in New York, Wednesday, March 24, 2021.
Brendan McDermid
Associated Press
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

A bill that would require New York State to create a locked box for funds from future opioid drug manufacturer settlements is now at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk. The measure, which has bi partisan support, as well as the backing of the state’s Attorney General, Letitia James, would change Cuomo’s practice of placing the money into the state’s general budget fund.

The bill, which was introduced by James, would create a state opioid settlement fund to be used for recovery services, like hiring counselors or creating more beds in addiction treatment centers. The funds would not be allowed to replace existing state funding for any services, including addiction and recovery programs.

James, along with other state attorneys general, is pursuing legal action against Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler Family who have a controlling interest in the company, Johnson & Johnson and other drug manufacturers who are accused of profiting financially from the opioid addiction epidemic. The anticipated settlements could be worth as much as $26 billion nationally, and rival the scope of the tobacco company settlements a generation ago.

The measure generated rare bipartisan agreement in the state Legislature. The sponsor, Democratic Senator Gustavo Rivera, who is from the Bronx, spoke during debate on the Senate floor, where it passed unanimously.

“When this money is there, Mr. President, that that money gets to places that can help us to actually repair the harm that has been caused by these private companies,” said Rivera, who accused the drug companies of “causing pain and death” for profit.

Senator Fred Akshar, a Republican from Binghamton, who had previously introduced a similar bill, said the state has a “moral obligation” to help those affected by the epidemic.

“It is incumbent on all of us, regardless of our politics, to ensure that every dollar of any settlement that this state may enter into actually gets into the hands of community-based providers who are providing these lifesaving services,” Akshar said.

The attorney general has already won an agreement with McKinsey and Company, which paid half a billion dollars to states, with $32 million going to New York.

Governor Cuomo’s budget office earmarked $11 million dollars for addiction treatment services in the state’s prison system, but deposited the remaining $21 million into the general budget fund.

Allison Weingarten is with Friends of Recovery, which advocates for those recovering from addiction. Her group is leading a campaign to get Cuomo to sign the measure.

Weingarten said recovery services in New York are chronically underfunded, and a locked box that steers the anticipated settlement funds to services could make a big difference.

“I think that this money coming in could be huge game changer,” said Weingarten.

“We have the potential to start funding this health condition in a way that could mean a huge change to individual, families and communities,” she said. “We are really looking to the governor to do the right thing here.”

In 2019 before COVID-19 hit, addiction rates lessened slightly, but the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 likely contributed to more people becoming dependent on addictive drugs, Weingarten said.

She said even though the measure goes against the governor’s past practices and gives him less fiscal control over the settlement monies, he should approve the bill anyway.

“He would show humility in signing this bill,” Weingarten said. 

Cuomo has until the end of June to sign or veto the measure.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.