Opioid settlement funds soon up for grabs in Tennessee. Here’s what you need to know.

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Dr. Stephen Loyd talks about substance use disorders and the opioid crisis at the Hamilton County Health Department on Monday, December 12, 2022.

As drug overdoses continue to kill a record number of Tennesseeans, members of the state's Opioid Abatement Council said they're expecting roughly $60 million in funds will be ready to distribute in 2023 to worthy organizations looking for innovative ways to alleviate the crisis.

The money comes from the more than $600 million opioid settlement funds earmarked for Tennessee, which began flowing into the state in 2022 from lawsuits related to the opioid crisis.

Dr. Stephen Loyd, an addiction medicine specialist and chairman of Tennessee's Opioid Abatement Council, said Tennessee is expected to receive $672 million over 18 years, with 15% of those funds going directly to each county based on population size and scale of their opioid crisis. Another 15% will go to the state.

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Tennessee and its counties can spend that 30% as they see fit, but the remaining 70% will go into Tennessee's Opioid Abatement Fund to be invested in efforts to alleviate the crisis outlined in the "remediation list."

The 16-page list is available on the Tennessee Opioid Abatement Council website and includes items such as expanding treatment and recovery support services, education and provider training, improving oversight, and supporting data collection and research to analyze the effectiveness of opioid abatement strategies.

The 15-member abatement council -- whose members were appointed and represent a range of expertise in addiction medicine, law enforcement, behavioral health, public health and local government -- is charged with determining how that money should be distributed in order to have the greatest impact in curbing the opioid epidemic.

"As of two weeks ago, we've got $41 million in the bank. By the end of the year, that number will be hopefully a little closer to $60 million," Loyd said during a presentation Monday at the Hamilton County Health Department, noting the goal is to have a finalized application available online by the end of January and the first round of grant money distributed in June.

Loyd, who is 18 years into his recovery from prescription opioid addiction, attributes his success maintaining sobriety to the quality of care and support he received as a physician, but most people are not able to access the same level of wraparound services because they're either not affordable or available.

Loyd told reporters after the meeting the overarching goals of fund distribution are to improve the existing system of care and incentivize those who are willing to innovate because the current system leaves too many falling through the cracks.

"Right now that system is fragmented," he told reporters. "So when we talk about possible uses for these dollars, tying that system together so that you get the help that's right for you, I think, is of paramount importance."

(READ MORE: Tennessee creates program to help families affected by opioid addiction)

He said he believes more programs in emergency departments for people who have recently overdosed or are hospitalized due to substance-use disorder could have a major positive impact, as well as recovery programs in jails or prisons.

In general, Loyd said people coming out of incarceration in the first 30 days are 40 times more likely to die of an accidental drug overdose.

"So for me, it makes sense to look at the people at highest risk, and that would be a really high-risk category," he said. "And then from an impact on the system standpoint, jails and prisons take a lot of resources and take a lot of people out of society. So, if there was a way to impact that and decrease recidivism, I think that becomes an area of interest for a lot of folks."

He also wants communities to get involved in developing local solutions and invited people to attend the quarterly Opioid Abatement Council meetings, which are open to the public and rotate locations across the state. The next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 27 in Franklin, Tennessee, and will also be streamed online.

While the council would like a certain percentage of money to go toward education, prevention, treatment and reaching underserved populations, Loyd said a challenge is that dollars come in over time, and it's unclear how much and when more money will be added to the fund.

"We want to get this money into the communities and in hurting families' lives as soon as possible. We also want to do it in a fiscally responsible way," he said.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Tommy Farmer said during the presentation that the rampant use and evolution of illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is significantly stronger than morphine, makes empowering communities to help alleviate the crisis even more urgent.

"We have some fentanyls out there right now that are 20,000 times more powerful than morphine," Farmer, who is also a member of Tennessee's abatement council, said during the presentation.

As of Dec. 7, 156 drug overdose deaths have occurred in Hamilton County in 2022, according to preliminary data from the Hamilton County Health Department. Fentanyl was listed as the cause in 128 of those deaths.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.