Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced plans to transfer the state’s opioid settlement funds to Arkansas’ general revenue fund. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Attorney General’s office)
This story was updated at 3:01 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16, to include additional comments from Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge wants the Arkansas Legislature to decide how to spend more than $140 million in opioid settlement money awarded to the state. Rutledge is directing the $20 million the state has received so far to the general revenue fund.
Many lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors restrict the use of funds to initiatives addressing the opioid epidemic such as substance abuse treatment or mental health care programs, Rutledge said during a press conference Thursday.
Rutledge encouraged the General Assembly to include stakeholders in discussions on how best to use the funds by forming a commission or task force. Legislation has been drafted that lawmakers can look over and consider if they want to create a commission, she said.
“This challenge is too great for one person to handle and the weight of it is too much for one person’s shoulders, and that’s why all of us in the state have to shoulder the responsibility,” Rutledge said.
Over the last six years, the state of Arkansas has secured approximately $430 million in opioid settlement funding. Of that, more than $140 million will go back to the state. The office has received about $20 million of that funding to date. Many of the settlements will be paid out in installments in the coming years.
Split with cities, counties
A memorandum of understanding signed in October 2021 formalized an agreement to split opioid settlement funds evenly between cities, counties and the state “when that resolution has been jointly entered into” by these three entities.
Former state drug director Kirk Lane is overseeing the disbursal of funding to counties and cities as the director of the Arkansas Opioid Recovery Partnership. The Association of Arkansas Counties and the Arkansas Municipal League formed the organization and Lane began his new role in August.
ARORP is offering $16 million for programs addressing opioid misuse and addiction. The partnership began accepting proposals in early November. Funding opportunities are ongoing so there are no submission deadlines.
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Approximately 75% of all drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2020 involved an opioid, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arkansas reported 546 overdose deaths in 2020, the most recent data readily available from the CDC.
Opioid-related deaths increased from 261 in 2020 to 371 in 2021, according to the Arkansas Opioid Dashboard.
During Thursday’s press conference, Rutledge reflected on initiatives her office implemented during her tenure to address the opioid epidemic such as her mobile offices hosting drug take back events in all of 75 counties.
“It is an incredible thing when you’re able to go out after eight years just as you came in, and that’s fighting strong for Arkansans, bringing millions of dollars back and directing them to the General Revenue to ensure that it’s used best for the people of Arkansas,” she said.
Rutledge was elected to serve as Arkansas’ Lieutenant Governor in the November general election. She’s the first woman elected to the position. Current Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin will succeed Rutledge as Arkansas Attorney General.
In a statement, Griffin said he will conduct an assessment of the use of settlement funds as well as spending on TV commercials and public service announcements “that have far exceeded historic norms.”
Additionally, he said he will follow terms of the settlement agreements and allocate proceeds to accomplish the goal of opioid abatement.
“Thousands of Arkansans have struggled with opioid addiction, including in my family, and we must do everything in our power to address this public health crisis,” Griffin said. “That may or may not involve the transfer of funds to general revenue.”
Rutledge will transfer funds from opioid settlements received to date to the General Assembly, according to her spokesperson.
Griffin becomes the state’s attorney general in January and will have discretion over the settlement funds that are paid out during his time in office.
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