The money won’t go very far but officials hope it will set a new course for the community.

Hawaii County will receive $489,000 in opioid settlement funds this year and just over $100,000 annually thereafter through 2038, Mayor Mitch Roth announced Thursday.

The state is receiving $81.4 million over 18 years as part of a $26 billion national settlement with several drug manufacturers and distributors, Roth said. Hawaii’s portion was set by a formula accounting for population and the impact of the opioid crisis on the state.

While the initial amount allocated to Hawaii County won’t go far, Roth said he will work to ensure that the Big Island gets an additional slice of the settlement funds the state receives. It’s already asked for another $2 million, he said.

Fentanyl citrate in various forms prescribed by doctors, used illegally in overdose can cause death.
Fentanyl is being smuggled into Hawaii resulting in a steady increase in the number or overdoses and deaths. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

With more money, the first order of business would be to open the island’s first detox facility, according to the mayor. The administration and the Big Island Substance Abuse Council are considering a location across from the courthouse in Hilo that could be renovated for that purpose.

“If your family member was going through drug overdose, drug addiction, where would you want them to detox? Probably not in a jailhouse,” Roth, a former prosecutor, said during an afternoon press conference.

The need for a detox facility on the Big Island is clear given recent grim statistics.

One person dies of a drug overdose every 11 days on the Big Island, with fentanyl as the leading cause, according to federal data. A total of 320 people in Hawaii died from drug overdoses in 2022 — one every 27 hours. That’s up from 305 in 2021 and 266 in 2020, according to the Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area

Mayor Mitch Roth was at the annual Hawaii Island Fentanyl Task Force summit in Waimea on May 9. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

For every fatal overdose, there are approximately 14 non-fatal overdoses making the scope of the problem in Hawaii much wider than what fatality numbers indicate, experts say.

Hawaii island is home to several high-end, exclusive programs aimed at people on the mainland with the financial ability to enroll, according to the Hawaii Island Fentanyl Task Force.

Big Island residents of average means, or those living in poverty or without homes or medical insurance, are generally referred to Oahu or the mainland for detox.

Many don’t go because of insurance and transportation issues, family and work obligations, waiting lists, and other delays. Lack of access to detox delays or prevents recovery, according to the task force.

Some of the funds announced on Thursday will support the task force’s education and prevention efforts, including trainings, school presentations, community fairs and annual conferences. The task force also focuses on early intervention and increasing treatment services.

“This funding today changes the course of what we can do as a community to prevent, to treat and to encourage recovery of the disease of addiction,” said Dr. Kevin Kunz, who serves on the task force. “These are good people with a bad disease.”

Dr. Kevin Kunz is a Kona-based retired physician who specializes in addiction medicine. He is a leading member of the Hawaii Island Fentanyl Task Force. (Courtesy: Dr. Kevin Kunz)

Of the $81.4 million coming to Hawaii from the settlement, 85% stays with the state and 15% get allocated to the counties.

Tim Hansen, executive assistant to Roth, said he expects Hawaii County will receive $2.2 million over the 18-year period during which the opioid settlement funds will be distributed.

In November, the Hawaii attorney general announced that the state is part of a $3.1 billion settlement with Walmart over allegations that the retailer contributed to the opioid epidemic by failing to properly oversee the distribution of opioids at its pharmacies. The attorney general has not said publicly how much Hawaii is in line to receive.

The Attorney General’s office did not respond to a request for comment late Thursday afternoon.

The Department of Health is the state agency handling receipt and distribution of opioid settlement funds. John Valera, acting administrator of the alcohol and drug abuse division who also chairs the Hawaii Opioid Settlement Advisory Council, could not be reached for comment.

Companies that manufactured, sold or distributed opioids are paying more than $50 billion in settlements to states, counties and cities over the next two decades, according to KFF Health News.

Former Gov. David Ige said last year that the state’s drug overdose deaths exceeded traffic fatalities in 2022.

Read about Hawaii’s plans for use of its opioid settlement funds here:

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