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GET THE RECORDS: How we’re tracking more than $100M in opioid settlement money in Pa.

by Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA and Kate Giammarise of WESA |

The Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust is reviewing county spending reports in private.
Daniel Fishel / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Records obtained by Spotlight PA and WESA provide a first-of-its-kind, wide-ranging look at how Pennsylvania county officials spent or are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars they received in opioid settlement money.

The newsrooms are still analyzing records obtained from dozens of public agencies. But they are making the spending reports broadly available to help ensure the public can see how counties and prosecutors spent the money before an oversight board publicly decides whether the spending was appropriate.

Using the state’s Right-to-Know Law, the newsrooms are seeking the reports from all 67 counties in Pennsylvania, along with 10 district attorneys’ offices entitled to funds based on their role in litigation.

Those agencies were approved to receive $141 million in settlement funds for 2022 and 2023, and are slated to receive hundreds of millions more in the years to come.

Counties had to file by March 15 detailed spending reports with the Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust — a group whose members have operated in secret and blocked the public from speaking at meetings. This is the first time these reports were due to the trust.

The 13-person oversight board has the power to withhold and ultimately cut funding if board members determine counties spent money inappropriately, based on strategies outlined in a settlement document known as Exhibit E. But the potential uses are broad and open to interpretation.

Despite the trust’s requirement to follow the state’s public meetings law, board members approved a plan in February to first review these spending reports in private small groups before making recommendations to the full board. Trust Chair Tom VanKirk said in February that the board plans to make spending information public “when we’ve had a chance to vote on it.”

In the meantime, these reports obtained by Spotlight PA and WESA offer insight into what trust members will be voting on, how counties spent the money, and in some cases, what their future plans are. About three dozen public agencies provided relevant records in the initial days following the newsrooms’ public records requests to counties across the state.

In February, in response to questions from Spotlight PA and WESA, the trust declined to say when the full board would meet to review the recommendations, and the trust didn’t say when it would make spending information public.

In a news release on March 21 — issued hours after Spotlight PA and WESA again requested details from the trust and informed the group of their plans to make spending reports publicly available — the trust provided limited spending details.

The news release said preliminary estimates show Pennsylvania counties and other local governments had spent or committed more than $70 million distributed by the trust to address opioid remediation, based on reports it received. The news release also said the trust’s small working groups would review the reports in April.

The trust’s next scheduled public meeting is May 2.

About the requests

Requesting records from 67 counties is a large and complicated undertaking. The newsrooms used a database from the state Office of Open Records, as well as individual government websites, to send the requests.

For uploaded files, the newsrooms have redacted certain contact information for individuals.

If you’re an official in a county that’s not listed above and think a records request didn’t reach the right person within your agency, if you provided a copy of the report and don’t see it listed here, or if you have an updated report to share, contact Spotlight PA reporter Ed Mahon at emahon@spotlightpa.org.

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