The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an Opioid Settlement Framework that will serve as a blueprint to leverage approximately $100 million from a legal settlement from pharmaceutical companies to address the opioid crisis.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the opioid crisis we face today results from actions by particular opioid pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, and illegal distributors. Jurisdictions across the nation have brought forward litigation to remediate opioid addictions and harms. San Diego County is a party to these lawsuits, and it is expected to receive tens of millions of dollars in settlement funds to address the local opioid crisis.
San Diego County Board of Supervisors chairman Nathan Fletcher and Supervisor Joel Anderson proposed a framework that includes strategies like expanding access to medically assisted treatment, putting “wellness advocates” in hospitals, providing wrap-around services and housing, drug disposal strategies, and public information campaigns.
According to the County, more than 900 San Diegans died from an opioid-related accidental overdose in 2021, which was a 54% increase from the previous year. These deaths are a result of both legally prescribed opioids and illicit opioids, including heroin and fentanyl.
“America is in the grip of an opioid crisis. This is not unique to San Diego. Across all 50 states, and in all communities, folks are suffering from addiction, trying to stem the loss of life that has resulted from the year-over-year increase in opioid deaths,” Fletcher said during the board meeting. “I think we grasp the urgency of the situation and feel a great desire and need to move as quickly as we can to address this crisis.”
The framework utilizes a “comprehensive and evidence-based strategy to tackle the opioid crisis in the region, according to Fletcher. Supervisors Anderson and Fletcher spent the past six months convening with opioid experts and stakeholders to focus on healthcare integration in both health and jail systems, harm reduction, and social supports and services to develop the framework.
According to a county board letter, key themes that arose from those meetings include the need for care coordination, cultural competency, stigma reduction, community-based organizations, first responder support, the building of housing, creating a robust workforce to treat and assist patients, and addressing health disparities.
Earlier this month, the county board of supervisors unanimously approved a proposal to require fentanyl awareness education in the county’s classrooms, distributing naloxone to parents and students, and training them on how to use the medication. This proposal, sponsored by Supervisors Jim Desmond, Terra Lawson-Remer, and District Attorney Summer Stephan, would be supported under the framework.
“I view the framework for the settlement that is coming as a much-needed blueprint for our region in transforming the health and well-being of our community,” Stephan said. “The board is moving at warp speed because there are literally neighbors, our kids, our brothers and sisters that are dying every day because of this epidemic. There is nothing that is facing our nation that is more critical right now.”
DA Stephan notes that over 100,000 people died in the United States because of overdoses, and 70,000 of the opioid deaths were caused by fentanyl.
“I stand with the board on this tremendous effort, and nothing is impossible until it becomes possible, and I know it can be done in our county and that we will lead in this area to save lives,” Stephan said.
Lawson-Remer took a moment to talk about the value of holding opioid manufacturers accountable and noted that affirmative litigation is vital to the community.
“Affirmative litigation is so vital to the pursuit of justice for people who have been victimized in our community, and it's so important as an avenue for us to seek the resources to gain redress,” Lawson-Remer said.
Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Nora Vargas said she supported the issue and wants to include youth in the solution.
“They are being impacted by their own friends and family members. So if they can be a part of the solution with our public health team, I think it will be great in terms of creating campaigns,” Vargas said. “I know there's a couple of influencers, especially in the Barrio Logan area, who are doing a fantastic job to reach out to our kids using the right language and culture, so they get it.”
Vargas also addressed comments about closing the borders in relation to this issue.
“There's a lot of misconception and inflammation for people who have a lot of ignorance about what happens in Mexico and other countries. I think it is important to emphasize that this is part of the discussion that we had yesterday with our Mexican counterparts. For them, it is also a priority to allocate resources as to how we address this. This is an issue that impacts not only the San Diego-Tijuana region but both countries. We know that it's not just coming from Mexico. It is coming from other places, and together, we can find opportunities to address this.”
Supervisor Jim Desmond said he is “really interested” in the $2.4 million in public health messaging that is “hopefully going into the fentanyl education in our schools”. Desmond also noted that he “somewhat disagrees on the border issue”.
“We’ve caught a lot of fentanyl that has come across the border, a lot that has been confiscated. I'm glad to hear the Mexican Government is also working on this effort because I can't imagine they are not immune to the same dangers and poisings. I do think we need to tighten up some of the efforts to make sure fentanyl does not come across.”