Buffalo News Op-Ed

July 14, 2023

The following Op-Ed appears in today’s online edition of the Buffalo News:

Make Sure Opioid Funds Get Where They Are Needed – Now

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration has good intentions in sending money to addiction treatment providers. But the money isn’t reaching its intended beneficiaries fast enough, according to vocal critics. The governor should send orders to speed the process.

The plan: New York State will bring in more than $2 billion from settlements gleaned from prescription drug manufacturers and distributors that helped fuel the opioid epidemic.

However, a couple of Western New Yorkers are among the critics who say little money has been flowing to addiction treatment providers who are, themselves, overwhelmed with demand. They should know. Avi Israel and Anne Constantino are longtime leaders of addiction treatment nonprofits in Western New York.

Constantino retired as CEO of Horizon, a major addiction services provider in Western New York. Israel is the founder of the Western New York addiction services nonprofit Save the Michaels of the World. His 20-year-old son committed suicide in 2011, minutes after being refused a bed in an inpatient treatment facility. Israel and Constantino are both members of the 21-member state Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board.

Rob Kent has joined the criticism. He is the former general counsel for the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS), the agency principally responsible for distributing the settlement funds. Kent also served as a top lawyer for the Biden administration’s White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Kent said OASAS should change the ways it distributes funds by combining grants in priority areas including distributing naloxone, harm reduction and recovery services.

“Take $50 million, $70 million, and accumulate it all in one big process,” he said.

All three critics say stabilizing staffing at existing providers needs to be an immediate priority.

OASAS Commissioner Chinazo Cunningham said in an interview that her office is receiving contradictory instructions. She may not be as defensive as she sounds, but there seems little doubt that a problem exists. That needs to be her focus.

Hochul acted last year when she signed the law creating the 21-member advisory board. The board began meeting in June 2022, and five months later issued a report detailing 10 priority spending areas, and the percentage of a planned $128 million budget that should go to each. The board’s November recommendations were nonbinding.

Since that time, OASAS has released a series of individual bidding opportunities “largely mirroring the categories.” Cunningham was quoted, “We really started from the top priority, and are working our way through that list.”

But, according to Constantino, the board never sought that approach. And while the advisory board recommended that a percentage of dollars go to 10 spending areas, it never demanded the series of “piecemeal, small-scale bidding processes” to which critics are objecting.

Cunningham, a physician who was appointed by Hochul in December 2021, has been under fire from Israel, who called the agency unresponsive and dysfunctional under the commissioner’s reign. True or not, people needing treatment are paying a steep price. That’s a crisis for those individuals. Hochul needs to ensure that her commissioner responds with the urgency it deserves.