By Victoria Ford
The fate of $15 million – Ocean County’s share of settlement payouts from the nationwide opioid litigation brought against opioid distributors and manufacturers – rests in the hands of a select number of people, and the public’s help is sought to review and evaluate incoming proposals from organizations vying for the money.
A body called the Ocean County Opioid Advisory Council was empaneled by the Ocean County Board of Commissioners last year to direct and oversee the distribution of the funds, which must be spent to “abate and remediate the impact of the opioid epidemic,” according to the council.
The council’s four main priorities are public awareness/education; care management and comprehensive wraparound services for individuals with substance use disorder and their families; prevention/early intervention; and workforce development.
The council has approved a three-year plan that determines how to spend the county’s $15 million share (paid out through 2038, or approximately $900,000 per year) of New Jersey’s $641 million from the national opioid litigation settlements. The plan includes a list of providers and treatment agencies, culled from resource directories and Treatment Atlas, a statewide initiative and online resource directory with quality data about providers.
The unanimously approved 2023-26 plan documents current needs and perceptions, according to Ocean County Department of Human Services Assistant Director Jamie Busch, who is on the operations team staffing the opioid advisory council. The plan is available to read and download at co.ocean.nj.us/OC/OCDHS/frmOpioidCouncil.aspx.
The human services department defines the opioid council as “a county-based planning, advisory and coordinating council dedicated to helping the community by providing input, advice, and recommendations to the county and participating municipalities regarding the use of opioid settlement funds.”
The council’s goal is to facilitate and enhance delivery of opioid/substance use disorder services through collaborative relationships in the community and between all other contributing agencies. Such relationships help identify high-priority needs and how to improve access for target populations through planning, coordinating, enhancing and implementation of initiatives at the county level.
“Ocean County’s functional network of agencies and organizations are dedicated to delivering strong programs and services to the community and its most vulnerable residents,” according to OCDHS.
The council’s second public meeting took place Thursday, Sept. 28. The next one is Nov. 30 in Room 116 of the Ocean County Administrative Building at 101 Hooper Ave. in Toms River.
In attendance at the Sept. 28 meeting were concerned citizens, Bill Hall of Social Leaf Dispensary in South Toms River, and activists from the Southern Ocean County-based Sea Change Recovery Community Organization and the New Jersey Resource Project, partners in the Not One More campaign, which works to expand access to evidence-based treatments and harm-reduction methods in New Jersey. The Sea Change/NJRP recovery model is “all paths, all folks, all welcome,” whether the best individual fit is a 12-step, abstinence-only program, or medication-assisted or harm-reduction approach.
Attendee Rick Seitz, speaking from his experience with the Ocean County Department of Juvenile Services and the DART Coalition, said substance abuse is a prime driver of juvenile detention and crime and everything else. With the money the county will receive, almost anything is possible, Seitz said, “but if it’s going to be more of the same old stuff – billboards, fliers, speakers – it’s doomed to failure.”
The council assured him the intention for the funding is to garner innovation.
Seitz supports preventive, educational strategies at the early elementary school level to help kids learn self-control.
Council chair Kim Reilly suggested municipalities might partner with their school districts to pilot such a program on a smaller scale.
When the county (at some undetermined point “soon” – keep eyes peeled on oceandhs.org) issues its Request for Proposals, agencies and service providers can throw their hat in the ring to have their idea, program expansion or innovation funded.
Currently, four of the advisory council members sit on the proposal review committee, “to ensure transparency and accountability,” according to the council’s written Request for Letters of Interest. There is room for up to five more reviewers to take part in the process of deciding where and how the money gets spent to support opioid/substance use disorder-related programming.
Any Ocean County resident – especially those with lived experience (first hand or addiction-adjacent), those in long-term recovery, and those who have lost friends or loved ones to overdose – interested in joining the committee that reviews the proposals has until Oct. 15 to submit a letter of interest. The review process is tentatively planned for November.
Reviewers must be at least 18 years of age and residents of Ocean County. There is no monetary compensation for the job. The time commitment will vary depending on the number of proposals submitted. Not required, but highly desirable for the role, is an educational or professional background in substance use prevention, substance use disorder treatment, mental health services, and related health and human service fields.
Reviewers will have about two weeks to read the assigned applications, all coordinated via email, phone and the online review system. A committee meeting may be held in person or virtually to formulate funding recommendations.
Review committee members and their immediate families must have no real or perceived conflicts of interest, including business or organizational interest (meaning 10% ownership or greater, employment, membership, donorship of $10,000 or more, volunteerism or patronage – but services received prior to 2020 are OK).
Applicants will be screened for conflicts by a team that includes staff from the Department of Human Services, Department of Finance and County Administrator’s Office. Candidates will then be reviewed by the opioid advisory council based on experience, skills, knowledge and expertise.
“It is anticipated that up to five additional reviewers will be selected,” according to the RLI.
Ideal candidates excel in:
• reading and comprehension;
• effective analysis against specific criteria;
• unbiased analysis for a proposal’s community value;
• strong, clear writing;
• attentive listening to others’ input, engagement, bridge building and synthesis;
• scoring discrepancy resolution;
• ethical decision making;
• adhering to confidentiality standards;
• avoiding conflicts of interest.
Visit surveymonkey.com/r/OCOAC to send a letter of interest by Oct. 15.
Ocean County opted in to the 2021 nationwide settlement agreements to resolve all opioid litigation brought by states and subdivisions against the three largest pharmaceutical distributors – McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen – plus a separate agreement with Janssen Pharmaceuticals and its parent, Johnson & Johnson. The big three will pay out $21 billion over 18 years, and J&J will pay up to an additional $5 billion over a nine-year period.
Ocean County has also opted into additional settlements reached with Teva, Allergan, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart.
Funds must be used for evidence-based services and programs to remediate the opioid epidemic, in accordance with the 2022 memorandum of agreement between state and local governments on opioid litigation recoveries, which establishes binding terms for the distribution and spending of funds, and from which the opioid advisory council was formed.
“The 113 enumerated uses focus on treatment of opioid use disorder, prevention of opioid use disorder and drug-related deaths and other strategies to combat the opioid epidemic,” according to the plan overview.
The opioid advisory council provides input, advice and recommendations across the approved uses of the money and advises the 12 participating municipalities within the county: Barnegat, Beachwood, Berkeley, Brick, Jackson, Lacey, Lakewood, Little Egg Harbor, Manchester, Point Pleasant, Stafford and Toms River. Those towns receive a separate, direct distribution of funds, based on population, ranging from a few thousand dollars to $135,000, in Lakewood.
Council members serve three-year terms and must have lived experience with substance use and addiction issues or expertise in substance use disorder treatment/prevention, or provide behavioral health or substance use disorder treatment in the community.
Some are named by Ocean County title: Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer; Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Director Kimberly Reilly; Mental Health Administrator Tracy Maksel; Appropriation of Funds Officer Julie Tarrant; Administrator Michael Fiure; Director of Management and Budget Tristin Collins.
Others include Ocean County Public Health Coordinator Daniel Regenye; Stephen Willis, Esq., co-founder of Hope Sheds Light; Tara Chalakani of Preferred Behavioral Health Group; and Kimberly Veith of Bright Harbor Healthcare.
Alternates are Renee White, Esq., Laura Messina, Lori Enquist-Schmidt and Pamela Capaci.
From a community needs assessment earlier this year, the strategic plan was developed that identifies priorities for funding to improve access for target populations through planning, coordination, and implementation of core strategy initiatives.
Agencies that may apply for abatement funding opportunities might be substance use disorder treatment providers, behavioral healthcare providers, hospital systems, health insurers or managed care organizations, prevention program providers, recovery community organizations, mutual aid/self-help and wellness centers. Those agencies interested in applying need to sign up for the OpenGov portal on the county’s website, in accordance with the state contracting process.
An eligible organization can be located outside of Ocean County to apply, but it must deliver services with the money only to Ocean County residents.
The council’s official website is nj.gov/opioidfunds.
“We want to start getting this money out there to the service providers,” Fiure said.
The council will hold open public meetings on Thursday, Nov. 30 and on four additional Thursdays in 2024: Feb. 29, May 30, Sept. 26 and Nov. 21.
— Victoria Ford