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Bill to create opioid settlement lockbox on Cuomo's desk

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A bill before Governor Andrew Cuomo would create a lockbox for anticipated opioid drug manufacturer settlement funds.

A bill that would require New York state to create a lockbox for funds from future opioid drug manufacturer settlements is now at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk.

The measure, which has bipartisan support and the backing of state Attorney General Letitia James, would change Cuomo’s practice of placing the money into the state’s general budget fund.

James introduced the bill, which would create a state opioid settlement fund to be used for recovery services, such as 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 state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who is from the Bronx, spoke during debate on the Senate floor, where it passed unanimously.

“When this money is there, we want to make sure, Mr. President, that that money gets to the 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 deaths” for profit.

State Sen. 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 upon 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. Cuomo’s budget office earmarked $11 million 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 lockbox that steers the anticipated settlement funds to services could make a big difference.

“I think that this money coming in could be a huge game-changer,” said Weingarten, who added addiction treatment services are chronically underfunded.

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

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

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

“He would show humility in signing this bill,” Weingarten said. "It would be a showing of support for the families that have been devastated."

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

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.