Robeson County is doling out opioid settlement money. But the process isn’t always easy

By Rachel Baldauf

rachelbaldauf@borderbelt.org 

When Tamiko Murphy first heard that Robeson County would get millions of dollars from opioid settlement cases, she was excited about what it could mean for her nonprofit, Tae’s Pathway, which serves children who use drugs.

Since she founded the organization, which she named for her son who died in a car accident 2013, Murphy says she has paid most expenses out of her own pocket. A licensed clinical addiction specialist,  she says she often works seven days a week and always keeps her phone on so she doesn’t miss a call from someone in need. 

Now, two years after it was announced that North Carolina counties would receive opioid settlement money, Tae’s Pathway is one of many organizations in Robeson County to receive funding. The organization got $32,475.

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Though grateful for the financial support, Murphy and some others who run similar community programs have described the application process as opaque and confusing for small nonprofits to navigate. 

“It’s difficult for small grassroots providers to get the funding,” Murphy said.

North Carolina is set to receive $1.5 billion from legal settlements with drug companies, pharmacies and other businesses accused of worsening opioid misuse through the mass distribution of painkillers. Counties and towns across the state are getting a share of the money over 18 years to fight the opioid epidemic. Robeson County, which had one of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in the state in 2022, will receive nearly $16 million.

The state distributed nearly $2.7 million to 34 government entities from July 2022 to June 2023, according to a data dashboard that tracks how the opioid settlement money is being used. Robeson County distributed nearly $196,000.

Last year, Robeson County allocated $86,440 to employment-related services, which will fund transportation programs to help those struggling with opioid misuse get to work and school, the dashboard shows. The county earmarked $46,903 for recovery support services, which will pay for peer-support specialists, and $35,107 for a post-overdose response team. About $27,300 went toward early intervention programs, naloxone distribution and planning expenses.

“It’s a new process for the state,” said Bart Grimes, chief of behavioral health services for Robeson Health Care Corporation, which received about $120,000 in settlement money this year. “This is kind of an unprecedented thing where there’s money available to be spent with this population.”

Writing grant proposals

Robeson Health Care Corporation and Tae’s Pathway are both part of the Robeson Rural Communities Opioid Response Program Consortium, a group of over 40 organizations that work together to fight opioid misuse. In 2022, the consortium applied to the county for opioid settlement funds as a group. The application was initially approved for $400,000, which the consortium was to distribute to its members. Later, county officials learned that this violated state rules, and they told consortium members that they needed to reapply individually.

“The county had to backtrack in that way,” said Ashely Love, the grant administrator for Robeson County. “We don’t want to mishandle funds. We don’t want to have to pay monies back by doing something that is not covered under these specific guidelines.”

Related: A new era in the war on drugs in North Carolina

Applying individually proved to be a challenge for many small organizations without grant-writing experience, Murphy said. “Grant writers are far from Lumberton, and if you can afford a grant writer, it’s very expensive.” 

When Murphy had to submit her application individually, she had a friend familiar with the process look it over. 

Carolyn Robinson, a social worker who runs Borderbelt Behavioral Healthcare in Lumberton, also had to reapply after the consortium’s application was rejected. She had never written a grant proposal, so she too had a friend look over her application before she sent it in. The county rejected it.

Love said the county offered a webinar about the application process, and she made herself available for any applicants who had questions. Still, distributing such a large amount of money is something the county has never done before, and both applicants and county officials deserve “grace,” Love said.

“Although I’m a grant administrator, I actually don’t have any experience funding grants either,” she said. “Where they don’t have the experience of writing it, I don’t have true experience of funding it. So this has been a learning process.”

Despite the initial confusion, Love said distributing funds to consortium members has gone well. Out of roughly 20 members who have applied so far, only three have been rejected, she said. 

In total, the county has given out more than $400,000, the amount initially planned for the consortium.

“We want to fund our groups who are doing this work,” Love said. “These nonprofits and small little grassroots agencies, they’ve been doing the work for years.” 

But money must be distributed according to state rules, she said.

“We should remember that this funding is the first of its kind. We may never get money to help combat this issue again,” she said. “Every dollar spent should be intentional.”

Reimbursements

The money organizations receive is meted out through reimbursements. So groups must spend money out of pocket first and then submit receipts. Love and Grimes said this is a common practice in the nonprofit world that helps keep track of how money is spent.

But Murphy and Robinson said that the reimbursement system is a burden on nonprofit directors in Robeson County, where more than 20% of residents live in poverty.

“We’re a very poor county,” Robinson said. “If I’ve got to go spend $5,000 on a van, when am I going to get reimbursed?”

Murphy and Robinson say they both worry about how much of the settlement money will go to grassroots organizations like theirs that have experience treating addiction in Robeson County.

Murphy, who has worked in addiction treatment for 15 years, said people in the community know that she’s a safe person to call when something goes wrong. “We can give the most accurate information because we work with the clients,” she said.

“We’re the ones hitting the ground,” Robinson said. “We’re the ones in the dirt. That’s why they call it grassroots.”

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