opioid epidemic

Face the Facts: Waterbury Mayor Talks About Impact of Opioid Epidemic

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Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary took charge of the effort for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities to get all 169 cities and towns on board with the opioid settlement.

NBC Connecticut's Mike Hydeck spoke with O'Leary about the settlement with Johnson & Johnson and major distributors. He explains how the epidemic is impacting our communities and where that money can do the most good.

Mike Hydeck: "So that is a pretty big feat, getting every single municipality to sign on to a settlement. Why was it so important to make sure every community is included with this?'

Neil O'Leary: "Well, the settlement was weighted heavily towards full participation. And so just to give you an example, if only 75% of the cities and towns signed on, we would only get 60% of that $300 million. One hundred percent participation, I think we may be the only state that we've heard so far that has 100% participation. And to get 169 cities and towns together was no small feat, but we're really proud of it because every single family has been impacted in some way by this opioid crisis. And we're grateful that our town and city leaders recognize that."

Mike Hydeck: "Absolutely. And Attorney General William Tong helped lead the fight on the national level. But Connecticut's fight really started in your city, in Waterbury. When you filed that first lawsuit back in 2017, did you imagine it would ever end this way? This significantly?'

Neil O'Leary: "Actually, we didn't. And we were so grateful for the strong support in the Attorney General's Office. And honestly, Attorney General William Tong has been a national leader on this front and great work. Every city in town of Connecticut should be grateful, because he took charge immediately with all the other attorney generals throughout the country. And the settlement is, I think, the best that we could have hoped for, and there's still more to come. Don't forget, this is a series of settlements that'll be coming our way. And it should provide enough opportunity for the state and every city in town to really put together effective plans to mitigate some of these problems."

Mike Hydeck: "And we need to remind people this is Johnson & Johnson and the distributors. This is not the Purdue pharma case, right? These are mutually exclusive."

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Neil O'Leary: "That is absolutely correct, sir."

Mike Hydeck: "Can you remind us the impact opioid addiction can have and has had on your city?"

Neil O'Leary: "A city like Waterbury, for instance, you know, and I'll go all the way back to 2012, when no one really knew anything about the opioid impact, where it was 11 fatal overdoses in the city. Where we really saw the uptick as of 2015, we jumped to 41; 2017 - 53; 2019 - 109 fatal opioid overdoses, and about 40% of those overdoses were from people who did not reside in Waterbury, people who live in the surrounding region. So, you know, it's really impacted every city and town from the very smallest community in our state to the very largest, and the impact on the families is just devastating. And, you know, and the impacts and the financial impacts on the communities is also significant as well. Thank god for Narcan. Narcan has saved so many lives throughout the state of Connecticut and throughout the country. But to give you an example, we had 840 Narcan deployments just in 2021. 840. And those are the deployments from our first responders. That's not counting anyone who has Narcan in their home. So this opioid crisis has not gotten better since the pandemic, it's gotten worse. And the numbers that we're seeing trending for 2022 in Waterbury, we're already at 51 overdose deaths. And we're only halfway through the year. So you can imagine how every other community is dealing with this as well. And it's just, you know, it's really the timing of this settlement couldn't be any better. The Attorney General's Office, Connected Conference of Municipalities working in tight collaboration with cities and towns. The timing is so perfect right now, because we can start these programs now and make a difference. Effective immediately."

Mike Hydeck: "Not to mention the impact it's had or the stress on the EMTs, the police who go to these calls over and over and over again. One more question before I let you go. Going forward, who's going to decide how the settlement money is allocated? Will you be doing it for Waterbury and each first selectman and/or mayor?"

Neil O'Leary: "Well, the town leaders will have a lot to say about where the funds go. There is a state commission that's being set up in September. Half of it will be state officials, the other half of the local cities and town representation. There'll be two co-chairs, one from the state, one from cities and towns, but ultimately it's going to be up to the town leaders and their respective governing boards to determine where the money goes. You know, obviously, we're looking for education, awareness, we're looking for abatement, we're looking for treatment programs, and we're looking to remove the stigma of opioid addiction so that people can actually go after this thing in a very meaningful and significant way and make an impact on all families that have already been impacted and future families."

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