The Opioid Abatement Authority's first listening session was held Dec. 1 in Roanoke. Courtesy of the authority.
A meeting that the Virginia Opioid Abatement Authority held in Roanoke. Courtesy of the authority.

First of two parts. Read part 2 here.

Tony McDowell has had a close-up view of the death and devastation that comes from opioid abuse.

Over his 25-year public safety career, he dealt with it first as a firefighter/paramedic with the Henrico County Division of Fire, then as the department’s fire chief and again as deputy county manager of public safety.

Tony McDowell. Courtesy of McDowell.

“If you’re involved in public safety, you’re involved in substance abuse,” he said. “It’s that simple. This epidemic has just got tentacles into every facet of public health, of public safety and of things like economic development and the condition of our workforce. It’s just a really pervasive challenge.”

McDowell, 54, the first executive director of Virginia’s new Opioid Abatement Authority, also had to deal with it on a personal level as he watched a close family member “spiral out of control as a result of opioids.”

“It has been a source of loss, sadness, grief and incredible stress,” he said. “There’s no question that the whole family suffers. …  If anyone thinks they are immune or that this cannot happen within their immediate realm of friends and family, I would simply say they are naïve to how powerful these drugs are.”

He vividly remembers witnessing the power of the drugs when he responded to a heroin overdose call on his first day as an acting lieutenant in the fire department. The man, who was about 21, had stopped breathing and his heart stopped.

The crew did CPR and provided advanced life support, including multiple rounds of naloxone administered intravenously. After 45 minutes of CPR, he regained a pulse.

Unlike many overdose calls, that one had a happy outcome. Eventually, the young man made a full recovery. McDowell called it one of the “most remarkable saves” he was involved with as a paramedic.

In his new role, McDowell wants more “saves,” and he said the settlement money offers a rare opportunity to “turn back the tide” on the opioid epidemic in Virginia.

That passion and all his experience with opioids have galvanized McDowell to work to find real solutions, and that’s a big part of the reason he was hired to head the Opioid Abatement Authority.

Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, is chair of the authority, which he said received a “host” of qualified applicants for the job.

Authority members

Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, chair

Dr. Sarah Melton, vice chair

Tim Spencer, Roanoke city attorney, secretary

Jim Holland, Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, treasurer

John Little, Health and Human Resources secretary

Dr. James Thompson, Master Center

Sharon Buckman, Piedmont Community Services Board

Daryl Washington, Fairfax Community Services Board

Joe Baron, Norfolk City sheriff

Mike Tillem, Journey House

Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County

He said McDowell was chosen because he had a “vision like no one else. He had been instrumental in Henrico County of some of their programming. He has first-responder experience, county government experience and he’s just an all-around great guy and tremendous leader who came highly, highly recommended by everyone that had ever worked with him.”

Pillion was recently re-elected chair of the authority. He said he believes he’s been chosen to lead the board because he represents an area severely impacted by opioid abuse and he has carried a lot of legislation dealing with the epidemic.

The authority was created by the General Assembly in 2021 to administer the Opioid Abatement Fund, which receives moneys from settlements, judgments, verdicts and other court orders relating to claims regarding the manufacturing, marketing, distribution or sale of opioids.

So far, three national-level opioid settlements have resulted in direct payments to localities in Virginia in 2022. Additional settlements are in the works, and a total of about $1 billion is expected to come to the state over the next 16 years.

Much lies ahead for the authority in 2023. It has been charged with distributing 55% of the opioid settlement money that comes to the state. On Jan. 19, it will begin accepting applications for the first round of that money. It will also handle the second round this year, starting in October.

Setting up shop

Both McDowell and Pillion likened getting the authority up and running to setting up a new state agency.

When McDowell started the job on Aug. 1, he had no computer, no email address, no cell number and no office.

In the nearly six months since then, a lot has been accomplished.

The authority now has a five-year lease on an office at 701 E. Franklin St. in Richmond, which is two blocks from the state Capitol.

Three key staff positions have been filled: Director of Finance Adam Rosatelli, Director of Operations Charlie Lintecum and Cara Moisan, staff support specialist. An accountant is being recruited and additional employees will likely be added.

The authority has entered into an agreement under which the state Attorney General’s Office is providing it with a full-time attorney. James Schliessmann, senior assistant attorney general, is serving as the authority’s counsel.

The 11-member board met a “remarkable” 12 times in 2022, according to McDowell, and has implemented a set of policies and bylaws to govern the organization. He credited the volunteer board members for the time and hard work they’ve put in over a short period of time.

In recent weeks, much time has been spent working on grant policies and the application process for the settlement money.

A new website has been launched to replace one that “wasn’t very helpful,” McDowell said.

The authority also worked with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office to try to make sure the 15% of the settlement money that goes to the state is used as intended.

McDowell said there was some concern the money would “just slip into the general fund and result in the funds being spent on things other than abatement, and so the governor has proposed in his budget creating a special fund that would lock down the opioid settlement funds that come directly to the commonwealth, lock them down to only be spent on opioid mitigation efforts.”

If approved, the state Department of Planning and Budget would handle appropriation of the money, he said.

In December, the authority rolled out an online tool (look for “locality lookup tool”) that details the payments localities are expected to receive from the first three settlements through 2039.

But most of the efforts have been spent on outreach, McDowell said, because there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the settlement money and how it can be used.

“It’s a great thing that’s happening, in my opinion, but it’s not simple,” McDowell said. “There’s complexity to this, and so a big part of our job, I think, is to help people understand what the opportunity is. And so probably the largest part of our effort has been spent trying to spread awareness and answer questions and be accountable for what we’re doing.”

 So, McDowell, board members and the new staff have appeared before a number of organizations across the state.

Some of those organizations included the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Municipal League, the Virginia Institute of Government, the Virginia Local Government Management Association, the Virginia Sheriffs Association, the Association of Regional Jails, the Association of Community Services Boards, the Virginia Bar Association, the Virginia Rural Health Association and the Virginia Chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

What comes next?

The new year promises to be even busier for the authority as it starts accepting applications for the settlement money it controls. Localities can apply for the first round of settlement money from Jan. 19-May 5.

Also on Jan. 19, the authority will start a two-day Opioid Settlement Funding and Best Practices Workshop at the Omni Richmond Hotel. It will offer information on funding opportunities and the application process as well as best practices for prevention, treatment and recovery.

McDowell will give the keynote address on the first day, and presenters on the second day will be Ginny Lovitt, with the Chris Atwood Foundation; Marty Kilgore, executive director of the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth; Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard; and Sharon Buckman, clinical director of the Piedmont Community Services Board.

The authority is also in the process of holding seven public “listening sessions” across the state.

The board wants to provide an opportunity for those most impacted by opioid abuse to participate in the process, McDowell said.

“If you spend any time at all around people who’ve dealt with substance use disorders particularly, people who’ve had opioid use disorder, they will tell you they felt like no one’s ever listened to them. They’ve never really had a voice,” he said.

The sessions are open to the public and the board is most interested in hearing from those in recovery, the family members, peers and allies of people impacted by opioid use disorders, service providers, law enforcement and local government officials.

The feedback will be used when the board sets funding priorities and makes decisions about applications for opioid settlement money.

Sessions were held in early December in Roanoke and Fairfax. The remaining sessions will be held:

Jan. 30 – Hanover, 6:30-8 p.m. at the Hanover County Administration Building board room

Feb. 12 – A virtual only session will be held from 5-6:30 p.m. via Zoom: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/3163214197?pwd=ZTVYMndhNzhJNXplWWlrVCtaSnRoUT09

Feb. 28 – Norfolk, 6:30-8 p.m., Norfolk Fire-Rescue Training Division auditorium

March 21 – Charlottesville, 7:15-8:45 p.m., Region 10 Community Services Board

April 8 – Abingdon, 2-3:30 p.m., Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center

Pillion said that through the settlement money, the authority has a chance to make a significant impact, and it’s going to do its best to make the right decisions and maximize the funds.

“We have the opportunity to change communities and families and individual lives all around Virginia,” he said. “Hopefully, we will not only deal with the current crisis that we’re in, but also make some things happen that can prevent the next crisis from being so severe or from happening. … There’s always something new coming on the horizon that’s being misused so what we’re trying to do is put programs and awards in place that really make the difference for the communities that have been affected the most.” 

Susan Cameron

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee for nearly 40 years. She is based in Bristol. Reach her at susan@cardinalnews.org.