LAKE COUNTY, Ill. — Using settlement money from opioid manufacturers and distributors, the Lake County, Illinois, Regional Office of Education is proactively developing an opioid education program ahead of statewide changes to how the subject is handled.
“Hopefully, Lake County is a leader in this going forward, as we’re going to have quite a bit of these resources available before other counties in the state,” Regional Superintendent of Schools Michael Karner said.
Legislation approved by the state legislature in July requires the state Board of Education develop evidence-based K-12 health education standards to reduce substance use risk factors and promote protective measures.
The standards are to be developed in collaboration with other state departments and the Illinois Opioid Crisis Response Advisory Council, and be made available to school districts by July 1, 2024.
Lake County has received just over $1.5 million in settlements so far, after national settlements were reached with opioid manufacturer Janssen Pharmaceuticals and distributors in January 2022.
This month, the Lake County Board authorized spending the funds to implement an Opioid Education Program for schools across the county, and to hire an opioid coordinator to help delegate the settlement spending.
Due to the new legislation, Karner thought the regional office could help develop curriculum before the mandates take effect for the 2024-25 school year.
“If we have local educators, utilizing local resources, then we can help design (curriculum) so it’s designed locally, and then be ahead of the game and not have to worry about that for next school year,” he said. “We just want to make sure we’re ahead due to this whole crisis that exists.”
In December 2021, the Illinois Opioid Allocation Agreement was approved by the attorney general and Illinois counties with populations over 250,000 for the opioid settlement distributions to ensure the historic settlements are allocated equitability.
Lake County is estimated to receive about $215,000 in settlements each year for 18 years, totaling about $3.9 million, according to a statement from the county.
The funds must be used to address the opioid epidemic, including the misuse and abuse of opioid products, treating opioid use or related disorders and mitigating other alleged effects of the opioid abuse crisis, such as those injured as a result.
In June, Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced settlements with drugmakers Teva and Allergan, and pharmacies CVS and Walgreens. As a result of the settlements, Illinois will receive approximately $518 million over 15 years. Additional settlement agreements and litigation are currently pending in the federal court system, which will likely add to the distributions.
National investigations and litigation against the pharmaceutical industry over the opioid crisis have led to more than $50 billion in settlements, with Illinois’ share at more than $1.3 billion.
Putting the funds in the right hands
An opioid coordinator for Lake County will manage the settlement funds and work with governmental organizations -— like the state attorney’s office, sheriff’s office and health department -— external partners and neighboring counties in mitigating the opioid crisis through grant funding, resource development and service coordination.
“Opioids don’t respect boundaries of any kind,” assistant county administrator Cassandra Hiller said. “If we can have a coordinated regional approach, hopefully we will make more headway in addressing the opioid epidemic.”
The coordinator role will be supported with settlement funds and has not yet been hired by the county. The goal is to have someone in place by November, Hiller said.
With future settlement funds, the county is considering mini-grants for local services providers who are on the front lines working with the community already.
Paras Parekh, County Board member for District 12, who chairs the Health and Community Services Committee, said a coordinator will be beneficial in identifying how best to get the settlement funds into the hands of those who are doing mitigation and diversion work already.
“I think it’s going to be a mix of use by the county where appropriate, but there’s clearly no interest in duplicating anything that other community partners are already doing well, and it often comes down to they’re doing great things, but need more funding sources,” Parekh said. “(The settlements) are a nice source of funding, but it’s not unlimited. So we really have to be careful in how we get our funds out there to help because the epidemic is growing.”
In the first six months of 2023, there have been 77 total overdoses in Lake County -— 62 of which were related to opioids. If the rate continues, the county will be on track to surpass last year’s numbers.
Of those related to opioids, 53 contained fentanyl and 38 were solely fentanyl -— an “alarming” pattern, according to Steve Newton, chief deputy at the Lake County coroner’s office.
“In 2023, we have had over five times the amount of only-fentanyl overdoses as we had the entire year of 2021, and over two times what was seen in the entire year of 2022,” Newton said in an email.
Data from the coroner’s office shows in 2022 there were 131 overdoses, 105 of which were related to opioids. Of the 105, 92 contained fentanyl and 16 were solely fentanyl.
In 2021, there were 127 total overdoses, with 93 related to opioids. Of the 93, 76 contained fentanyl and seven were solely fentanyl.
Lake County’s Regional Office for Education also hopes to use some of the settlement funds so schools can host community resource fairs on opioid education for anyone.
“The reason you’re seeing education dollars going up front right away is not indicative of, ‘Oh we think education is the priority, that it’s the number one thing.'” Parekh said. “It just happens to be Dr. Karner is ready to use the funds now, so it was a good opportunity.”
While education on prevention and mitigation is important, Parekh said education alone is not enough and the county will invest settlement dollars into other actions later on.
” (Funds) always have to be in support of those that are either directly or indirectly impacted by opioids,” Parekh said. “So, could dollars go toward housing, mental health, educational prevention? Absolutely.”
In addition to an improved drug curriculum, all school districts must maintain a supply of an opioid antagonist, such as naloxone -— known by its brand name Narcan -— by Jan. 1, 2024.
Last year, the Lake County health department offered Narcan to county school districts, so some schools and staff are already equipped and trained to use the overdose reversal medication.
The health department will continue to work with school districts to comply with the January 2024 mandate.
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