Cuyahoga County considering $10 million ‘Innovation’ fund to combat opioid epidemic

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish wants to form a $10 million Opioid Innovation Fund to support and test new strategies for combating the opioid epidemic, but county council is divided over whether it’s needed and how it might work.

The money, which would come from the county’s $117.5 million in opioid settlement funds, would be invested “in what appear to be promising technology and systems” for preventing or treating opioid addiction, the county’s Director of Development Paul Herdeg told county council’s Finance and Budget Committee on Tuesday.

The programs could be developed and administered by public health systems, like Metro Health, or other start-up companies, he said. Only 5-10% of the funds would be used on operational costs.

The county would also create a new advisory board to manage the funds, review proposals and guide investments over a three-year period, with the expectation that the county would start to see results within five years, Herdeg said. The board would be comprised of experts from the medical field, community representatives and those with personal experience with addiction, either themselves or through a family member.

So far, the county has been spending most of its money on treatment-based solutions, Herdeg argued, “but as we continue to see the terrible number of people impacted…we can’t help but say to ourselves, can something else be done?”

That struck a chord with several council members who say the county’s ever-climbing drug deaths are evidence that the strategies they’ve been trying aren’t working. The county reported 710 drug-related deaths in 2021, just shy of the 2017 record of 727, according to preliminary numbers on the Cuyahoga County Board of Health’s “Overdose Data Dashboard.” And Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson has already predicted as many or more deaths this year.

District 2 Councilman Dale Miller called the numbers “one of the most monumental failures of our society,” and said he supports trying “something new and radical.” Roughly a third of the deaths in 2021 occurred in his district, heath department records show.

“I think what we’re doing isn’t working right now,” he said.

Several other councilmembers on the committee agreed, saying they would prefer to fund more prevention efforts to help residents avoid becoming addicted in the first place, rather than chase treatment.

Councilman Jack Schron said he’s already receiving calls from companies eager to move to Cleveland, if the funding is available, and gave examples of programs attempting to reprogram the brain to end addiction or technology that ensures prescriptions are disposed of appropriately and in full, to prevent abuse. Councilwoman Nan Baker said she’d be willing to invest more than $10 million in finding solutions.

There’s no guarantee any of the funded projects will work, they acknowledge, but they think it’s worth the risk.

“Everybody says $10 million is a lot of money and I’m not going to exaggerate that it’s not, but we’re talking about $140 million that we’re putting out just for the treatment piece,” Schron said. “What if we could stop those treatment pieces on the front end before they ever got to that. This is what this innovation fund is about.”

Other council members are skeptical of the spending and how funds would be distributed.

Council President Pernel Jones, Jr., called it unusual to spend $10 million on a pilot program, even if money is split among 6-10 projects. He also questioned why the proposal requires moving funding to another entity, such as the Cleveland Foundation, to safeguard and release as the advisory board direct.

“We can hold our own money,” Jones said.

District 5 Councilman Michael Gallagher called the plan a “slap in the face” to the organizations currently providing traditional services and said he wants to hear what they think about the plan. He was also skeptical of bankrolling technology he fears addicts may use to further their addiction, noting cases where people were using fentanyl test strips meant to prevent overdoses to instead ensure they’re getting the best high.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do to save people searching out fentanyl to in essence kill themselves,” he said. “I’m not against innovation but I’m very delicate about the dollars we still have.”

Creation of the fund was initially included weeks ago on the county’s fiscal agenda, appropriations for which are not required to pass through committee before approval, but council pulled it and sent it to committee for discussion, first. It’s unknown when it may return to the agenda for an official vote.

Annie Rittgers, who has been helping the county develop parameters for how the fund would work, advocated for council’s support. She currently runs Realworks, a nonprofit that invests in and manages pilots aimed at ending addiction, and she believes additional resources could finally ferret out solutions.

“There is an opportunity to try something new in order to do better and to be a leader,” she told council.

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