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Mobile methadone clinics are among the initiatives Philly will fund with opioid settlement funds

Pennsylvania will receive $1.6 billion from a $26 billion national settlement; Philadelphia expects to see $200 million of those funds over the next 18 years.

Bill McKinney adjusts his glasses while listening to councilmember Quetcy Lozada speak during a press conference regarding how Philly will spend money from national opioid settlements at the McPherson Square Library in the Kensington section of Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.
Bill McKinney adjusts his glasses while listening to councilmember Quetcy Lozada speak during a press conference regarding how Philly will spend money from national opioid settlements at the McPherson Square Library in the Kensington section of Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

Hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements from opioid companies will flow to community-based initiatives aimed at helping people in addiction and supporting Philadelphia communities grappling with an overdose epidemic that killed a record 1,276 people in the city in 2021, local officials announced Thursday.

Among the initiatives funded will be a mobile methadone program that sends vans staffed with medical workers into neighborhoods to dispense the opioid-addiction treatment drug methadone to participants on the same day they sign up. Philadelphia is one of the first U.S. cities in more than a decade to enter talks with the federal government on such a program.

The funding comes as part of a $26 billion settlement from a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and the drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson, negotiated last year by then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro. (Shapiro will be sworn in as Pennsylvania’s new governor Jan. 17.)

Philadelphia and dozens of other Pennsylvania counties now expect to receive millions from a $1.6 billion fund for the state. The city expects to see $200 million of those funds over the next 18 years, and so far has received about $20 million in two payments, city officials said.

Mayor Jim Kenney initially protested against the settlement, feeling it wouldn’t give Philadelphia enough funds, but eventually the city signed on.

» READ MORE: What Philly and its suburbs stand to get from opioid lawsuit settlements

“It’s not everything we wanted, but it’s what we could get,” Kenney said at a news conference at McPherson Square Library in Kensington — the neighborhood at the heart of Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic, which has dealt with widespread open-air drug use and sales for years. In a statement, he said the plan will “immediately impact lives and produce outcomes that residents can see and feel — in their parks, their schools and their homes.”

The settlement funds announced Thursday represent a portion of the billions of dollars expected to flow into Pennsylvania communities as part of a slew of lawsuits against drug manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies, and consulting groups who sold and advertised opioid painkillers — widely blamed for a national addiction crisis and years of skyrocketing overdose deaths.

The city is accepting grant applications to distribute a $3.5 million “Overdose Prevention and Community Healing Fund.” The fund is aimed at preventing substance use and addressing stigma and trauma in communities around the city, but special consideration will be given to “high-impact zip codes” in North Philadelphia and Kensington, which have the city’s highest numbers of overdose deaths.

An additional $7.5 million will go to a planning effort in Kensington called Kensington Wellness Corridors that will fund home repairs, help residents battle foreclosures, and improve parks and schools in the neighborhood.

Bill McKinney, the executive director of New Kensington Community Development Corporation, who also lives near McPherson Square, said he was encouraged by the city’s settlement distribution plan. NKCDC and another community nonprofit, Impact Services, will receive some of the neighborhood revitalization funds. Too often, McKinney said, Kensington has been the recipient of “top-down” plans that don’t involve enough community members; this time, he said, the city has worked to partner with community organizations.

McKinney said the effects of the crisis have touched nearly every Kensington resident. “We’re dealing with different types of trauma here — the person sleeping in the street, the child who can’t walk to school, the people living in homes in disrepair,” he said. “This is an epidemic that has been amplified by structural racism, classism, and most people’s desire to contain rather than solve the problem.”

The plan will also fund programs aimed at reducing the harms of illicit drug use and encouraging more Philadelphians into addiction treatment. The city in 2021 reported alarming spikes in fatal overdoses among Black and Hispanic residents.

» READ MORE: Philly’s supervised injection site nonprofit will again start settlement talks with the feds

A new model for addiction treatment

The city’s planned mobile methadone clinics will offer a low-barrier form of opioid addiction treatment that, between 2007 and 2021, was effectively banned from expanding in the United States. (Methadone vans operate extensively in other countries, including Portugal, where they are credited with helping people with severe addictions who aren’t ready for more structured forms of treatment.)

In 2021, the federal government relaxed requirements around mobile methadone, allowing already-existing methadone clinics to operate vans without getting special permission from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

City officials will also use the funding to expand methadone access in prisons and jails — and to give incarcerated Philadelphians higher doses of buprenorphine, another drug used to help treat people with opioid addiction, up to 16 mg. (Previously, incarcerated people in Philadelphia prisons were only allowed an 8 mg dose.)

“That allows for treatment at the same level as people who aren’t incarcerated,” said Jill Bowen, the commissioner of the city Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. “[Incarcerated people] can transition much more easily into treatment when they leave jail.”

Settlement dollars will additionally go to expand the city’s wound-care services. That’s particularly necessary, officials said, because of the presence of the animal tranquilizer xylazine in the city’s drug supply. Xylazine, or “tranq,” can cause serious lesions and overdoses that are harder to reverse.

Funds will also support housing initiatives, including a new shelter for couples, homes for people leaving jail, and housing designed for people living on the street who want to attend outpatient drug treatment. The city plans to put some of the money toward the expansion of a police-assisted diversion program that aims to get people with addiction into treatment instead of arresting them.

At Thursday’s news conference, some Kensington residents said they were encouraged by the funding announcements, but remain skeptical after years of failed interventions in the neighborhood. Several stressed that the opioid crisis is a citywide problem, and that part of the city’s goal should be to avoid concentrating drug use in their neighborhood.

Patrice Rogers, a Kensington resident who runs a camp shelter, Stop the Risk, for people with addiction, said the crisis — and efforts to combat it — cannot be limited to Kensington. Nor, she said, should people with addiction be treated as though they’re not residents of the same community.

She said she was encouraged by Thursday’s announcement, though — particularly because of the community organizations involved. Rogers is a community connector with Impact Services.

“I believe it’s different this time because of the people involved — that’s going to make a difference,” she said. “I believe they care about community.”