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Case managers, vehicles, harm reduction: how Pittsburgh is spending opioid settlement funds 

Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh is spending most of its share of a settlement with opioid manufacturers on a diversion program that aims to put people accused of low-level crimes into treatment rather than jail.

The city received $413,657.41 in funds for 2022 and 2023, according to a report filed with the state’s Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust. It has spent about half of that on staffing, a vehicle, training and medical supplies for the city’s new Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. WESA obtained the report through a Right to Know request.

“Diversion has been proven to help with recurring overdoses and substance use disorder issues,” Camila Alarcon, director of Pittsburgh’s Office of Community Health and Safety. told WESA.

The money is also being used to provide harm-reduction supplies — such as clean syringes and test strips to detect dangerous chemicals — to people in the diversion program and to others who request them.

“I think that we really want to focus our opioid settlement fund on training, harm reduction, [and] supplies,” Alarcon said. “We are getting so much demand from the community for [overdose reversal drug] Narcan and test strips, and we are running out pretty fast.”

The office is managing how the city spends the opioid settlement funds. Alarcon says 31 individuals have participated in the diversion program so far. While the participants were not all facing drug charges, she added, roughly 80% of them were found to have opioid use disorder.

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City officials announced the diversion program earlier this year, shortly after it launched in police Zone 1, which includes all of the city’s North Side neighborhoods, as well as Zone 2’s neighborhoods of Downtown, the Hill, and Strip District and Lawrenceville. The city hopes to expand the diversion program to police zone 5, which covers several East End neighborhoods, before the end of the year.

“We needed the program,” Alarcon said. “That's why we have 31 cases [so far], because the option was jail. And particularly for this population, jail is not really the answer.”

The crimes for which the accused may be eligible for diversion include: retail theft, simple possession, possession of paraphernalia, prostitution, public intoxication, disorderly conduct and various levels of trespassing.

Program expenses detailed by the city include three full-time employees, as well as training, conferences, and a vehicle for case managers. The city has also used the money to provide syringes, fentanyl and xylazine test strips.

Those supplies are being distributed through a syringe services program the city launched in 2022, though it has struggled since then.

The city is authorized to distribute syringes from a building along Second Avenue, though the site has yet to be used for that purpose due to renovation needs. The distribution, which for now takes place through community hubs, was criticized last fall for failing to establish an adequate clean-up policy for used needles. Alarcon said that the city has since improved its efforts to collect used needles by making containers for them more readily available.

“We are following every single guideline that the health department requires,” she said.

As a result of legal settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors, Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have received millions of dollars in opioid settlement funds. Some other communities, such as Pittsburgh, also received funds under the settlement because they were involved in separate litigation.

Use of that money is supposed to be consistent with Exhibit E, a legal document that gives broad guidance for how funds can be spent. Education, drug treatment, and prevention programs are all eligible for funding.

WESA and Spotlight PA have filed dozens of Right to Know requests to obtain reports of spending from counties, as well as the local municipalities receiving settlement funds.

Allegheny County has received a far greater amount of funding, roughly $14.4 million, in the past two years. It has spent the money on a variety of social service programs.

County spending is subject to some oversight by the Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust, which can withhold funds if it believes money was not spent in accordance with Exhibit E. But local governments that receive settlement money do not have their spending reviewed in the same way.

A spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office has previously told Spotlight PA and WESA that the office intended to clarify the reporting requirement for local agencies, so they will be subject to the same scrutiny as counties.

Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA contributed to this story.   

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.
Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.