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Opioid settlement funds are flowing to Berkshire County. How much will your town get?

Gary Pratt stands in front of crowd

Gary Pratt, director of Rural Recovery, addresses supporters prior to cutting the ribbon for the opening of the South County Recovery Center in Great Barrington in 2022. The center could be line to receive opioid settlement funds.  

LENOX — The town is in line for a pipeline of funds totaling $358,000 to fight opioid addiction.

The flow of money comes from settlements following a successful lawsuit by attorneys general from 14 states, including Massachusetts. The suits targeted major pharmaceutical companies and distributors of opioid drugs, including Johnson & Johnson, Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, Teva and Allergan.

What’s the best and most effective way to deploy the money to help victims of drug abuse?

Berkshire County gets a $4.5 million share of the statewide total — $230 million from the settlements and another $310 million from a statewide opioid recovery fund. The funds being distributed this year through 2031 were secured by Gov. Maura Healey last year, when she was among the attorneys general who filed the lawsuit.

Statewide, 14,260 residents have died from opioid-related overdoses from 2015 through 2021, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health database, including nearly 300 from Berkshire County.

Pittsfield recorded 143 deaths, North Adams tallied 51, Adams reported 19 and Lee 12. Other towns reported single-digit totals for the six-year period.

Each of the county’s 32 cities and towns are sharing the settlement money, with the amounts based on data that tracks opioid use disorder, overdose deaths and opioid shipments across the state.

At a recent Lenox Select Board meeting, Dianne Romeo of the Lenox Board of Health and James Wilusz, executive director of the regional agency Tri-Town Health, recommended the nonprofit Rural Recovery, operator of the South County Recovery Center, based in Great Barrington, to receive funds.

The center, which opened last September, provides aid and resources for people impacted by substance use in 14 towns from Lenox south to the Connecticut border.

The settlement funds are directed toward people greatly affected by the opioid epidemic and “the broad impacts our Berkshire County communities have suffered through,” said Wilusz.

“One of the biggest challenges we see is that there’s not enough treatment and resources,” he said. “Berkshire County is in really tough shape with respect to this."

Tri-Town Health, which serves Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, focuses on advocacy and support, he said.

When the settlement was announced in April 2022, then-Attorney General Maura Healey said the funding was not enough to undo the damage caused by the opioid epidemic but still represents a "huge win for people in Massachusetts."

"So many families across so many realms and walks of life, every city and town in this state, have had visited upon them devastating loss, devastating crisis, devastating trauma," Healey said.

The Rural Recovery Center is seeking support from the 12 towns in the Southern Berkshire Public Health Collaborative, including Tri-Town Health. “We’re offering our support and endorsement for the center, which we see is making a significant impact for our South County residents,” Wilusz declared.

He noted that beyond administering Narcan to overcome the potentially fatal effects of overdoses, “there’s so much more that goes into opioid misuse and overdose prevention,” Wilusz explained.

Aid is directed to current substance users as well as people in short- and long-term recovery, friends and family members, said Gary Pratt, director of Rural Recovery, operator of the South County Recovery Center at 67 State Road (Route 7 & 23) in Great Barrington.

“It’s not hidden away, it’s right there on a main street and a bus route, and it’s an absolutely beautiful, renovated space to provide a nice, warm welcoming space for people,” he noted.

“I know that stigma is probably the hardest barrier facing anyone coming through substance abuse,” said Pratt, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.

He has been in long-term recovery from opioid and alcohol abuse for 14 years. “Just walking through the door of a place like that is extremely hard to do, but it’s so vitally important to be greeted by a person with lived experience,” he said.

Open and honest communication is crucial for people dealing with substance abuse disorders, Pratt emphasized.

The center, which has two full-time recovery coaches, offers Narcan training, community outreach and peer support group meetings on Monday and Friday nights at the center, reaching 20 to 40 people. The coaches also travel to towns to help people in their local community.

“We can stay with them through the entire process,” Pratt stated, at no cost to those seeking help at the center or in their own communities.

The center also has partnered with Berkshire Community College, Fairview Hospital and the Brien Center in Pittsfield, the county’s largest provider of behavioral health and addiction services.

Pratt also connects people who need shelter and a home with Construct, the South County provider of affordable housing.

He suggested that opioid recovery funds are best directed through the center to “people who have been victimized by the pharmaceutical companies and the distributors.”

Pratt described his own challenges with drug use, living in Great Barrington, Sandisfield and elsewhere. “I wish there had been something like this 15 years ago, when I was trying to get into recovery,” he said.

With the current resources at the center, drug abusers can get immediate support “so they can get help that can benefit them, without doing it alone,” he stressed.

Selectman Neal Maxymillian praised Pratt for the steps already taken, pointing out that rural communities tend to lack the level of attention and services for opioid users directed to larger communities like Pittsfield.

“I favor getting our available funds as close to the boots on the ground as possible, which means like you folks,” he told Pratt.

Select Board member Marybeth Mitts noted that any Lenox residents who may need services can make use of the recovery center. “We’re just a pass-through from the state attorney-general’s office to an organization that does these really great things to help people recover,” she said.

“It’s a huge problem in South County’s smaller towns,” Selectman Edward Lane said, citing the center’s collaboration efforts.

The Rural Recovery Center would report details back to the Select Board on the number of people in Lenox they help each year for relay to the state attorney general’s office, Mitts explained.

To distribute the settlement dollars, the town could allocate support or use American Rescue Plan Act funding, said Town Manager Christopher Ketchen. Legislation may be pending to streamline and expedite the settlement funds, Wilusz told the Select Board, citing support from state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

The center is focused on South County, Wilusz noted, “but I hope it’s a model for the future. We need things like this in central and north county as well.”

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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