AG brings funds, hope for opioid recovery to county

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New York State Attorney General Letitia James was in Utica on Tuesday to tout the likely $4 million coming to Oneida County as part of multiple settlements in her court battles against the opioid epidemic.

James is touring the state as part of “HealNY,” a campaign to bring awareness to the $1.5 billion that was won in settlements between her office and Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, Cardinal Health and other companies connected to opioid painkillers. James said Oneida County could receive anywhere from $4.2 million to $4.8 million once all of the settlements are finalized.

The larger Mohawk Valley area could receive between $9.6 million to $17.5 million, officials said.

“We sued Big Pharma and they are paying for the tragedy they caused,” James said while visiting The Center for Family Life and Recovery, a drug addiction support organization based in Utica.

“What we are seeing is a complete breakdown of our society because of this opioid crisis. And COVID just made things worse.”

James was joined by several area elected officials, including state Senator Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, Rome; Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, D-119, Marcy; Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr.; Utica Mayor Robert M. Palmieri; Sheriff Robert M. Maciol; and District Attorney Scott D. McNamara among others.

“There is no one answer — it’s a multi-pronged approach,” James said of her allies. She noted the “pain-staking” negotiations her staff conducted to reach the settlements.

“We’re not done. More funds are coming through more settlements.”

The money from the settlements is expected to start being handed out by the end of the year, James said, and will be dispersed over a period of time.

The money will be used for drug treatment, prevention, family care, affordable housing and more, to “prevent this from happening again,” James said — though she noted that some families can never fully recover.

“There is no dollar amount that can ever, ever make up for what they’ve already lost,” James said, noting that there have been 275 overdoses reported in Oneida County this year alone, including multiple fatalities.

James said that once the full dollar amount has been settled, and all 62 counties across the state agree to the deal, state government officials will form committees to start allocating the money.

One man eager to see the money in good hands is Eric Rodriguez, a prevention family peer advocate at the Center for Family Life and Recovery who spoke to the attorney general on Tuesday. Rodriguez said he was a heroin addict for 25 years, along with being both a member of a gang and a criminal with multiple convictions. Now he’s an advocate helping others who are just like him.

“Addicts are humans, and we’re capable of change,” Rodriguez said.

“These funds...allow us to employ people to go out there and ask questions” that Rodriguez wished he had been asked when he was an addict on the streets.

The elected officials on Tuesday also praised James’ work to combat the opioid epidemic.

“It’s about recovery,” said Picente. “We do know that if we can get to people soon enough, they can recover and see the path forward.”

Picente noted that of the 26 towns in Oneida County, “all of them have little pockets of issues” that need to be addressed.

Griffo said, “The challenge remains, the fight continues. We will continue to focus and do our best to eradicate this.”

“The money will be put to good use,” Griffo stated.

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