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Rhode Island starts distributing settlement funds

September 15, 2022

Rhode Island’s committee has started distributing funds received from the opioid settlement. To understand the state’s process better, we spoke with Justin Berk, MD MPH MBA, who serves as an Expert Representative on Rhode Island’s Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee. He is an Addiction Medicine physician that has provided low-threshold buprenorphine treatment in primary care settings, mobile health units, telephone hotlines, and correctional facilities. He is also the former Medical Director for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

Rhode Island will be getting close to $120 million over 18 years from various settlements. The statewide Advisory Committee started meeting in April 2022. How did the committee identify the state’s strategic priorities and areas in need of additional funding?

The State has done a tremendous job in facilitating collaboration between state agencies, community members, and experts to strive for optimal use of these funds. Well before the amounts were announced, leaders in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services did extensive research and identified the Hopkins framework to help guide decisions regarding funding. They solicited input from other state agencies, utilized existing Opioid Overdose Task Forces to identify current needs, and sought guidance from experts in the field to help build the plan for funding. This was built on an existing infrastructure that identified core themes in Opioid Overdose projects: Prevention, Treatment, Rescue, and Recovery.

The first round of grants that organizations can apply for was announced in August 2022. How did you move from identifying areas of need to specific grants? 

The first step was identifying broad areas that needed funding so that the procurement process could start early in the state fiscal year. While specific solutions are still being identified and developed, major programs (such as the first state harm reduction center) were identified, discussed and voted on.

How will the Advisory Committee assess the effectiveness of the investments it is making?

Ongoing assessments of projects is an important and iterative process. The Advisory group will continue to meet on a monthly basis to not only identify funding opportunities for upcoming years, but to ensure progress in being made in addressing the opioid overdose crisis. Metrics included in each Request for Proposal can be reviewed and one of the next challenges for the Advisory Group will be to determine how to best monitor the state’s investments. Of note, one of the core tenants of the State’s strategic planning is one to address health disparities and work towards racial equity. This will be included in each RFP and will be continually monitored as well.

20% of the settlement money in Rhode Island will be going to cities and counties. How can the Committee and the state help local communities determine how best to use the money? 

The State has taken on several Technical Assistance meetings to support local municipalities, to share the State’s plan and resources for identifying high-yield investment opportunities. Moreover, the Advisory Council has representatives from municipalities that help ensure transparency and open communication to best align everyone’s work.

What advice do you have for other states?

We’re still in the beginning processes though I’m optimistic that the funds in Rhode Island will go to good use. Having a framework of values to fall back on each decision (e.g., use the funds to save lives, avoid supplanting of existing funds, focus on health disparities) serves  as an important guideline. One of the challenges will be balancing speed (of getting money into the community as quickly as possible), effectiveness (of getting funds to where it can best support the community to save lives), and flexibility (to be able to iteratively assess and make changes as needed to ensure the funds achieve our goals). By ensuring all stakeholders have input (whether state agency, community advocates, municipal leaders, science experts), can help ensure nothing is overlooked and that these funds truly serve their purpose of addressing addiction and supporting the community.