Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to prevent overdoses around the country — starting with $10 million in funds going to Pennsylvania, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis — is funding its first projects in the commonwealth.
Vital Strategies, the public health nonprofit that is working with Bloomberg Philanthropies on the project, is announcing Tuesday that the money will help more than 100 hospitals to develop treatment strategies for opioid use disorder; support the use of medication-assisted treatment in state prisons; and train law enforcement on the principles of harm reduction.
The $10 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies will be doled out over three years. Tony Newman, the director of communications for Vital Strategies’ overdose prevention program, said the organization was not releasing the exact dollar amounts going toward each program.
Staffers at Vital Strategies have been working with state agencies on strategies to reduce the overdose death rate — and to identify where treatment and prevention programs are still falling short. Drug overdoses killed 5,456 Pennsylvanians in 2017; the state lost an estimated 4,200 people to overdoses in 2018. In Philadelphia alone, 1,217 people died of drug overdoses in 2017 and 1,116 in 2018, with the vast majority of deaths linked to the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
The Bloomberg funding is “relatively small,” but there’s more flexibility in how it can be used than with federal grants, said Daliah Heller, Vital Strategies’ director of drug use initiatives.
The first funds will go toward recruiting hospitals to join an “Opioid Action Learning Network,” aimed at developing a set of best practices for treating opioid use disorder. The state is already encouraging hospitals to use emergency department visits after an overdose as an opportunity to connect people with treatment, Heller said.
“Our specific interest is opioid agonist treatment” — opioid-based treatment medications like methadone and buprenorphine — “because it’s an effective treatment against overdose,” Heller said.
The new hospital network, the organization wrote in a news release, will “accelerate the Pennsylvania hospital community’s response to the opioid crisis, and provide a national model for collaborative innovation to improve patient care.”
Bloomberg funds will also support the state Department of Corrections as it begins to offer methadone and buprenorphine to inmates, Heller said. They plan to help county jails offer the medications as well.
Methadone and buprenorphine are considered the gold standard for treating opioid addiction. Yet fewer than two dozen jails and prisons around the country offer it to inmates, even though people recently released from jail have a higher risk of overdose. Philadelphia prisons began offering buprenorphine a year ago; Camden’s jail announced a medication-assisted program earlier this year.
The Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition and the Pennsylvania Sheriffs Association also will get money to train law enforcement professionals on harm-reduction strategies like using naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug; directing people toward clean syringe exchanges and fentanyl testing strips; implementing diversion programs for low-level drug offenses; and encouraging use of medication-assisted treatment.
Vital Strategies will be launching a media campaign aimed at publicizing access to treatment and decreasing stigma toward people who use drugs.
Heller said the Bloomberg initiative has pledged $50 million in total to be distributed among 10 states. It hopes to develop a national model through its work in Pennsylvania and Michigan, the second state to receive funds.
“Pennsylvania is exactly the kind of state we’re happy to be working in, because it’s so variable — if you move from the east to the west, the south to the north, you have very different local culture, and a real variability in how communities are,” Heller said. “Part of the intention of this project is to develop initiatives that can work. And it’s not to say [other communities] have to do it exactly like we did in Pennsylvania, but we can say, ‘In this kind of community, this kind of approach might be able to have an impact.’”