Overdose deaths. Courtesy of CDC.

I read with interest your June 13th column tracing the origins of Virginia’s Tobacco Commission, which was set up in 1999 to make smart, multi-year investments using about half of Virginia’s multi-billion-dollar settlement with the tobacco industry. As you correctly noted, Virginia stood out among many other states in targeting those once-in-a-generation resources to programs with the stated goal of re-engineering Virginia’s tobacco-dependent economies in Southwest and Southside.     

Utilizing lessons learned from that experience, the Commonwealth soon will have another opportunity to set a national example with its use of settlement dollars from litigation against opioid manufacturers and drug distributors. In just a matter of weeks, the first payments from a multi-year, $530 million settlement will begin flowing to Virginia, and the Commonwealth has already made smart decisions about how to responsibly allocate this money on a local, regional and statewide basis. 

First, some history. As the coal, furniture and textile industries shut down in the 1990s and early 2000s, those industries left behind more than shuttered mines and factories. Their departures also left entire regions of people, many of them with permanent, work-related disabilities, to face economic hardships and a growing opioid epidemic. 

The epidemic was ignited and then recklessly fueled by drug manufacturers, distributors, and others. The misuse and abuse of pain pills like OxyContin ultimately led to explosive growth in heroin abuse and contributed to today’s flood of fatal overdoses tied to powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl.  

I am a proud son of Southwest Virginia. I was born and raised in Scott County, and in the early years of the crisis it was heartbreaking for me to see Appalachia targeted as ground zero by major players in the pain pill industry. I doubt there’s a single family in any Appalachian community that has not been touched by the opioid crisis since then. 

Between 2007 and 2021, more than 300 fatal opioid overdoses were recorded in the coal counties of Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise, and nearly 350 more occurred in Lee, Russell, Scott and Tazewell counties. During that same period, Virginia saw more than 14,500 fatal opioid overdoses statewide.

We still haven’t turned the corner. In 2020, 1,478 Virginians died from fatal opioid overdoses statewide — an average of four fatal overdoses per day, and a 17-percent increase over 2019. Statewide, there were nearly 10,000 emergency room visits for opioid-related overdoses in 2020 — a 33-percent increase over the prior year. 

The opioid epidemic has reached into every community in Virginia — rural, suburban, and urban. The epidemic continues to reverberate in small towns and big cities alike, and that’s why it’s appropriate that a significant portion of these opioid settlement dollars will be directed to Virginia counties and cities.

Last fall, the organization I have been privileged to lead since 2016, the Virginia Association of Counties, worked with its sister organization, the Virginia Municipal League, to ensure Virginia’s local governments had a seat at the table. We worked with outside plaintiffs’ counsel and the Virginia attorney general to secure 100% support from all 133 of the Commonwealth’s counties and cities for a settlement agreement that directs about half of the multi-year opioid settlements to localities.

Our local governments have served on the front lines of the epidemic for more than 20 years. The crisis has touched every aspect of local budgets – including law enforcement, local jails, fire and rescue services, public health and behavioral health programs, public schools and foster care programs. Under the terms of the settlement allocation agreement, each Virginia locality has committed to spend a significant portion of their settlement dollars on community-based prevention, treatment and recovery programs.  

The other half of the settlement funds will be channeled through the new Virginia Opioid Abatement Authority, which is led by a board including members of the General Assembly, representatives from local government, state agencies, and various subject matter experts. The Authority was established through state law last year, with bipartisan legislative support, to identify and fund responsible, impactful opioid abatement efforts. It will provide ongoing support for effective statewide education, prevention and treatment efforts, and encourage cooperative regional initiatives by localities that partner together. 

I’ve spent nearly 30 years involved in state and local government, beginning in social services and juvenile corrections in my native Southwest Virginia. In the early 2000s, I served as Virginia’s deputy secretary of health and human resources, where I was involved in setting up the state’s prescription monitoring program to more effectively address drug diversion and abuse. Today, as director of the Virginia Association of Counties, I can’t wait to see how our counties and cities invest these new resources to address the lingering impacts of the opioid crisis within their own communities.   

Dean Lynch is Executive Director of the Virginia Association of Counties.