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‘I hope it makes a huge difference’: What $23 million in opioid settlement funds could mean for Oklahomans

A memorial for Hunter Hamilton, 15, outside his family’s house. Hunter died from fentanyl poisoning, and his mother, Whitney Ruggles, has been advocating for awareness of the nation’s opioid crisis.
Jillian Taylor
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
A memorial for Hunter Hamilton, 15, outside his family’s house. Hunter died from fentanyl poisoning, and his mother, Whitney Ruggles, has been advocating for awareness of the nation’s opioid crisis.

Hunter was always on the go.

Whether it was soccer, gymnastics or skateboarding, he put 100% into everything he did. His mom, Whitney Ruggles, said the thing people remember the most about him is he touched their lives through his kindness.

Hunter’s life ended suddenly on Dec. 30, 2021, from fentanyl poisoning. He and a friend got a hold of an illicit drug, and the pill Hunter took contained enough fentanyl to kill seven people. He was only 15.

“I just thought it couldn't be true, and he was going to be fine. … I didn't cry until we got to the hospital, like on the way there,” Ruggles said. “It was just an eerie feeling.”

It only took one night for Hunter to become one of 1,873 Oklahomans who have lost their lives to opioids from 2018-2022. He lived in Tulsa County, which is in the top five for opioid-related deaths in the state from 2018-2021.

Ruggles now spreads awareness about opioids alongside her friends at Families Supporting Families, a support and advocacy group dedicated to families who have lost immediate family members to drugs. They’re ready to see additional support trickle into the communities that need it.

Whitney Ruggles and her mom Melissa in front of their memorial for Whitney’s son, Hunter, in her home. Hunter loved to skate, so every year, for the anniversary of his death, Whitney gets him a skateboard. The skateboard behind the glass was the one she got him this year.
Jillian Taylor
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Whitney Ruggles and her mom Melissa in front of their memorial for Whitney’s son, Hunter, in her home. Hunter loved to skate, so every year, for the anniversary of his death, Whitney gets him a skateboard. The skateboard behind the glass was the one she got him this year.

That support is on its way. Lawsuits against opioid distributors, manufacturers and retailers have materialized into nearly $1 billion in settlement funds. An initial payout of $23 million is available to Oklahoma schools, municipalities and counties for treatment and prevention through the Oklahoma Opioid Abatement Revolving Fund.

Now, 250 of those said they’re interested in a portion of it through letters of intent sent to Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s office.

Each of these 250 public bodies has seen the impacts of opioids in some way, and now they have until March 8 to make their case for why they should get some of the money.

The grant distribution process

Thomas Schneider, the attorney general’s deputy general counsel, said the office went the letters of intent route because there were 1,200 eligible public bodies, and $23 million could only go so far.

“If everybody's going to get money, we're not going to make an impact,” Schneider said.

After the $23 million is spent, there will be $4 million left in the Oklahoma Opioid Abatement Revolving Fund under the nine-member Opioid Abatement Board’s oversight for local communities. Schneider said there’s also about $34 million in another fund, the Opioid Lawsuit Settlement Fund, which is controlled by the Legislature.

He said the hope is to get more money from it to do additional grant cycles, but that will depend on the office building trust with the Legislature and “demonstrating competency.”

The office has divided grants into tiers based on population to ensure transparency and prevent misspending, and it will distribute them quarterly. Spending will be outlined in quarterly reports subject to the Open Records Act, meaning everyone from the office to citizens can track expenditures. The office also plans to hire a grant coordinator sometime this month.

Schneider said the office is interested in creating a public dashboard to track the money, but it will require additional funding. He said the attorney general’s office plans to make a small legislative request for a portion of the Opioid Lawsuit Settlement Fund this session.

The goal is to keep things public, although entities can also contract with private ones to implement a specific approved project.

“We've taken the safer approach, we believe, in keeping with the political subdivisions who you know, for the most part, we're going to be helping them through this process, hopefully, developing and building out capacity to do other grants in the future,” Schneider said.

That will likely be possible for these entities, as many settlements will result in multi-year payouts.

“We're going to be receiving money for the next, about 15 years. … So we're going to have money coming in, and we're going to need to spend it, and we can only spend it on certain purposes,” Schneider said.

What can the money be spent on?

Approved purchases are outlined in the Political Subdivisions Opioid Abatement Grants Act, approved by the Legislature in 2020. There are 21 allowable purchases in Oklahoma law, including things like decreasing illicit drug supplies, expanding treatment, providing education and monitoring use.

Oklahoma Healthy Minds Policy Initiative saw this funding as an opportunity to implement its mission of advancing best practices around mental health and substance use by helping public bodies. The initiative put together a guidance packet communities can refer to as they build their applications.

“We felt like it was our role to step in and help provide some support and technical assistance and guidance around how communities can really leverage this moment,” said Jessica Hawkins, the group’s director of community and systems initiatives.

Hawkins said communities can’t take this process with a one-size-fits-all approach. They can inform their projects by getting data that captures what they are experiencing from their county’s health department, the Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and CDC.

It’s additionally important to engage with local stakeholders from a variety of fields, including prevention specialists, providers, first responders and people impacted by this crisis, Hawkins said.

A Drug-Induced Homicide banner featured in the Jan. 25 Cleveland, Oklahoma drug assembly held at the town’s event center.
Jillian Taylor
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
A Drug-Induced Homicide banner featured in the Jan. 25 Cleveland, Oklahoma drug assembly held at the town’s event center.

Although urban communities might benefit from more local stakeholders to collaborate with, Hawkins said all 77 of Oklahoma’s counties have Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics. These clinics provide mental health and substance use disorder treatment services, and Hawkins said they can be excellent resources in the planning process — especially to more rural communities that might face barriers.

The guidance includes five principles communities can follow as they decide what they want to spend money on. They’re based on research the group conducted that works in tandem with state-approved uses.

The goal is to save lives, guide spending, invest in young people, and be equitable and transparent. It also recommends specific ways to spend the money, including prevention through education, the distribution of the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone and screenings to identify substance abuse in primary care settings. She said identifying the current needs of Oklahomans is crucial.

“It's easy to jump immediately into ‘What do we want to do? What services do we need?’ But it's really critically important that communities take stock of the scope and the nature of the problem that's going on right now,” Hawkins said.

Oklahoma has been lauded for past spending on tobacco settlement funds from a 1998 lawsuit against the four largest tobacco companies in the U.S. It prioritized direct investments in programs to prevent and reduce tobacco use based on CDC best practices and in communities to promote healthy living.

Oklahoma is the only state to direct its funds into a constitutionally protected trust, the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust [TSET]. The trust takes in 75% of the payments it receives, and its director of public information and government affairs, Thomas Larson, said the state has seen the benefits of that through a reduction in smoking prevalence.

“Eventually, [other states] had a budget shortfall, and they go raiding whatever funds they can find,” Larson said. “That hasn't happened in Oklahoma because we created this constitutionally protected trust fund.”

Other states failed to use this money for its intended purpose, using it to do things like fix budget holes and even pay tobacco farmers. Now, there’s a national concern that opioid funds won’t be spent intentionally. But as Oklahoma prepares to make future investments to combat the opioid crisis, Larson said there are a few lessons it can learn from the successes of its past ones.

“Be very specific about what you want to do, and look at the best practices,” Larson said. “Talk to the researchers, talk to the experts in the field and find out what are the best ways to prevent opioid addiction, to help people who are struggling with opioid addiction and create healthier communities moving forward.”

What do those affected have to say?

Sand Springs mom, Rebekah Brown, lost her 18-year-old son, Cole, to fentanyl in 2021. It was just before they moved to Oklahoma from California when Cole purchased what he thought was Percocet from a Snapchat dealer. It was laced with fentanyl, and he died. She said Cole experimented with drugs since he was 13 to cope with the death of his father.

This was his second experience with fentanyl. Naloxone saved him during his first.

Cole Brown’s senior picture. The 18-year-old lost his life after taking a fentanyl-laced pill in 2021, and his mother, Rebekah Brown, now works in Oklahoma to spread awareness of the opioid crisis.
Jillian Taylor
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Cole Brown’s senior picture. The 18-year-old lost his life after taking a fentanyl-laced pill in 2021, and his mother, Rebekah Brown, now works in Oklahoma to spread awareness of the opioid crisis.

Brown has also been working with the group Families Supporting Families to advance education on opioids like fentanyl. They put together presentations, enlisted the help of law enforcement and come armed with their stories into any public space that will listen.

Last year, the group spoke to 29 schools. It recently held one of its larger events in Cleveland, Oklahoma. Members spoke to 800 middle and high school students alongside the local police department and Pawnee County’s District Attorney, Mike Fisher.

Brown said education is where she would like to see the biggest investments, especially in younger groups.

“Just keep feeding them, giving them the opportunity to learn, to understand, to see how it is affecting families,” Brown said. “Come up with something where it's on a daily [basis] they're reminded in their school, 'This is out there, it will take your life.'"

Whitney Ruggles speaks to Cleveland, Oklahoma middle and high school students during a Jan. 25 drug assembly at the town’s event center. She shared with students about how she lost Hunter to fentanyl.
Jillian Taylor
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Whitney Ruggles speaks to Cleveland, Oklahoma middle and high school students during a Jan. 25 drug assembly at the town’s event center. She shared with students about how she lost Hunter to fentanyl.

Both Ruggles and Brown said they are supportive of increased mental health treatment and the continuation of free Naloxone distribution. The Oklahoma Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is distributing Naloxone to Families Supporting Families. In total, the Department distributed over 160,000 doses last year.

Hawkins said Healthy Minds is working with communities who have reached out asking for guidance as they build their applications, and it wants to continue supporting these groups as they determine what they want to apply for. State agencies like the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services are also offering assistance.

“If you need ways to reach out or get involved or have more questions, we're here to answer all of them about what's going on locally in communities,” said Bonnie Campo, the department’s senior director of public relations.

Oklahomans like Ruggles and Brown, who are most intimately involved in this crisis, will have the most questions about how these funds are spent. It could mean another chance for future Oklahomans that their sons never got.

Students from Cleveland High School walk back to class after attending a drug assembly held in Cleveland, Oklahoma’s event center.
Jillian Taylor
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Students from Cleveland High School walk back to class after attending a drug assembly held in Cleveland, Oklahoma’s event center.

“There's so many areas this money could help, if it's distributed in the right way and actually used for that purpose,” Brown said. “I hope it does. I hope it makes a huge difference.”

Ruggles said during the process, she hopes to see the conversation around substance abuse continue to evolve and become more empathetic toward victims of the opioid crisis, like her son Hunter.

“My son did make a choice, but he's paying his price,” Ruggles said.

Jillian Taylor has been StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter since August 2023.