State and local governments will, over the next nearly two decades, receive billions of dollars from companies accused of sparking the opioid epidemic. KHN recently published an investigation showing these jurisdictions have promised little to no public reporting on how that money is spent.
The investigation is based on a detailed analysis of hundreds of written plans, statutes, executive orders, and public statements, first conducted by Christine Minhee of OpioidSettlementTracker.com and bolstered by KHN’s reporting. The information has been compiled into an interactive map and a detailed spreadsheet that we hope can help others investigate opioid settlement stories in their communities.
KHN’s story provides the national perspective. You can run our story in full or use it as context if you pursue a local angle. Please always credit KHN for the reporting and Minhee for the data.
Tips to get started:
1. Find out what information your state or local governments are required to report about their use of settlement funds.
Start with the interactive map. It shows how your state compares with others on public reporting. Click on a state to see details, including:
- The percentage of funds an average person would be able to track.
- The percentage of funds that will be reported to some oversight body but not necessarily shared with the public.
To see the language that underpins these numbers — including the specific laws and legal documents that require reporting on the money — check out this table at OpioidSettlementTracker.com.
2. Access those reports.
Once you know what your state is required to report, go find it. If reports are displayed online, links are shown via the interactive map. If reports are kept by an agency, that agency is identified in the table. Reach out and ask for the reports, citing the legal requirements listed in the table if necessary.
If you cannot find a report — despite it being mandated in legal language — that may be a story itself.
3. Dig into the spending decisions.
Once you have reports on how the funds were used, dig into specifics. The national settlements came with a list of recommended strategies. Check if your community’s use aligns with them.
Ask how these spending decisions were made. Were community members involved in identifying priorities? Was there a fair and open process to apply for grants?
The settlement dollars will be paid out over nearly two decades. Do these reports reflect one-off spending decisions or ongoing allocations over that time? Is there a plan to evaluate the impact of the money after a few years and reshape future priorities?
4. If your state or local government has no public reporting requirement, that might be its own story.
The KHN investigation found nearly half of all states have not enacted any specific reporting requirements. If yours is one of them, ask why. Some have called settlement funds “blood money” for those who died of overdoses and feel they have a right to know how the payouts are used.
You can use the interactive map to compare the level of transparency in your state to that of similar or neighboring states. Pay attention to not only the public reporting but also the reporting required to an oversight body; ask why that information is not made public as well.
Talk to people in recovery, family members who have lost loved ones to overdoses, treatment providers, advocates, and others in the field about what consequences the lack of transparency is having in your community.
5. Check for any reports suggesting your state or local government spent money in ways unrelated to the opioid crisis.
Even states that have no reporting requirements of their own are subject to a bare minimum national standard: reporting how much money they use on expenses unrelated to the opioid epidemic. (This can be at most 15% of the state’s settlement cash.)
Reports from state and local governments can be found here. Governments are required to submit reports only if they determine they’ve used funds for non-opioid purposes, so you may not see a report from your community. Those that do file reports list only a dollar amount, so you’ll need to contact the person who signed off for details about how that money was used. New reports are filed approximately every six months.
6. Get help for further reporting.
- Reporting on Addiction has guidelines, source recommendations, and other tips that can help. During a “virtual fireside chat” the organization hosted, KHN senior correspondent Aneri Pattani shared tips with reporters on where to start and how to cover the opioid settlement at the community level. Watch the 30-minute session here.
- Minhee, who analyzed the data for this investigation, has other resources on her site, showing which lawsuits states engaged in and how they’re planning to spend the money.
- Pattani is also available to share advice. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.