The state of Ohio is getting over $800 million from a settlement with opioid manufacturers to help address the overdose crisis and substance use disorder. But the OneOhio Recovery Foundation, an entity set up by the state to manage most of these funds, is coming under fire. On August 8, the nonprofit Harm Reduction Ohio (HRO) filed two lawsuits alleging that the Foundation is illegally keeping its decisions and meetings largely behind closed doors.
The OneOhio Recovery Foundation was created by the state government, which now claims that it is a private nonprofit. HRO wants to compel the Foundation to turn over certain requested documents, conduct its business transparently and be declared a public body.
“Ideally you would involve at the table the voices of people who use drugs, people in recovery, and also their loved ones and family members.”
“Public meetings and spending of money like this is [usually] something the public has some say over,” Sydney Sauer, operations director for the Safety, Outreach, Autonomy, Respect (SOAR) Initiative, told Filter. SOAR, another statewide harm reduction nonprofit, is not directly involved in the lawsuit but supports its goals.
“Ideally you would involve at the table the voices of people who use drugs, people in recovery, and also their loved ones and family members, who are also grossly underrepresented on this panel,” Sauer continued. “Not only are the meetings closed, but there was no public call for people to be involved [as members]. It was a ‘who knows who’ and people were picked [with] no chance for the public to apply.”
According to an email from HRO to Filter, the OneOhio Recovery Foundation has not been registered as a nonprofit. It added that at least some of the board meetings to date have either been visible to the public by video or have allowed members of the public to attend, but that none have allowed anyone to speak to the board.
According to the HRO blog, the Foundation has had four board meetings to date, although it’s possible there have been other private meetings with committees.
Connie Luck, a spokesperson for the OneOhio Recovery Foundation, responded to Filter by email. “An important lesson of the opiate epidemic is that communities must pull together, and the Foundation is committed to helping them do that—as quickly as possible,” she wrote. “It is unfortunate that anyone would want to take any steps at all to block or slow down Ohio’s communities from getting the relief they need to support recovery and prevention.”
Underlying the lawsuit is concern over how much money will be allocated to “recovery and prevention” rather than harm reduction provision for people who continue to use drugs—an area where it is easy to understand their desire for transparency.
Sauer said that Ohio harm reduction advocates have not been consulted or informed in any spending decisions made by the Foundation to date (although it reportedly hired an Oklahoma-based PR firm on a $10,000-a-month retainer).
Ohio reached a settlement with the nation’s three largest drug distributors—Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen—in September 2021, to the tune of $808 million. The companies agreed to this to avoid going to trial over their alleged role—one that some would dispute—in the opioid-involved overdose crisis.
Of this settlement money, 30 percent is going to local governments, 15 percent to the state and the rest—$444 million—to the Foundation. The concept behind the Foundation was developed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) and Attorney General Dave Yost in March 2020 as part of the OneOhio plan, to preemptively create a mechanism for distributing funds from any future settlements. DeWine’s administration succeeded in getting 73 of Ohio’s 88 counties to agree with the model, which was designed to prevent a repeat of the controversies when Ohio settled historic lawsuits against the tobacco industry in 1998. (The state diverted tobacco settlement money to its general fund as it struggled with the Great Recession.)
The Foundation is run by a 29-member board, including members appointed by the governor, the attorney general, the legislature and local governments. According to an agreement between these parties, the Foundation shall be created as a “private 501(c)(3) foundation (‘Foundation’) with a governing board (‘Board’), [and] a panel of experts (‘Expert Panel’).”
The agreement continued that the Foundation “shall operate in a transparent manner. Meetings shall be open, and documents shall be public to the same extent they would be if the Foundation was a public entity.”
HRO stated that the Foundation is “operating secretly and in violation of Ohio open meetings and public records laws.”
But harm reduction advocates says this isn’t happening. In May, HRO criticized the Foundation’s decision to hold its first meeting in private. HRO President Dennis Cauchon repoted trying to attend the meeting, but being told he could instead watch it on a TV screen. No one else was allowed to attend or speak.
HRO stated in an August 9 blog post that the Foundation is “operating secretly and in violation of Ohio open meetings and public records laws.” The Foundation is claiming, HRO said, that because it’s a nonprofit, it does not need to have public meetings, and that it will “voluntarily” disclose what it thinks the public should know.
HRO also noted that the board’s makeup includes 14 elected officials, three retired politicians, six public servants, and just four private sector members—including the wife of US Senator Rob Portman (R). The board has one Black member, no Asian or Latinx members, and no one who is in recovery from opioid use disorder or personally impacted by overdose.
The Foundation’s response, as reported by the Columbus Dispatch, is that it must register as a private nonprofit according to the opioid settlement terms, and operating as a public body would undermine that.
A spokesman for Governor DeWine told Ohio’s Statehouse News Bureau that the Foundation is a private nonprofit, and added, “While our office is not a party to the lawsuit, we believe that the OneOhio Recovery Foundation has provided significant transparency to date to the public.”
“One of the main priorities is to allocate more funding towards evidence-based strategies and harm reduction versus looking mostly at treatment, which is what I think is happening right now.”
“If this lawsuit does go through and it’s found that OneOhio is breaking the law, then everything the board has done up to this point would be erased and it would be starting over,” Sauer said.
And if that happens, then organizations like SOAR and HRO want a seat at the table in deciding how the opioid settlement money is spent. That would include expanding access to naloxone, fentanyl test strips and syringe service programs. Although as Sauer pointed out, fentanyl test strips would still need to be decriminalized under state law, to remove any barriers from public funds being spent on them.
“One of the main priorities is to allocate more funding towards evidence-based strategies and harm reduction,” Sauer said, “versus looking mostly at treatment, which is what I think is happening right now. Of course while treatment and recovery facilities are an important part of the equation, if you only address that issue you’ll be leaving the other half behind.”