A Year After Overdose Crisis Declaration, Federal Funds Start Flowing

Advocates urge community oversight on funding

Aaron Ferguson with Community Medical Services speaks during Texas Harm Reduction Alliance's press conference today (Photo by Lina Fisher)

Today, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, along with city and county officials, commemorated the one-year anniversary of the county’s overdose crisis declaration.

They also announced the first infusion of federal opioid settlement funds – about $1.5 million for the city and the county each – from a lawsuit against opioid producers. Next week, City Council will vote on whether to create a full-time employee position with the funds within Austin Public Health to manage harm reduction strategies, and Travis County Judge Andy Brown has promised another $750,000 in this year’s county budget for harm reduction.

THRA and other advocates are urging the city and county to create a community advisory council to oversee the funding allocation – without it, they worry “the status quo will continue – funding broken systems, piecemeal solutions, and leading to increased overdose deaths.” Despite the county’s infusion of $350,000 toward the issue last year, fentanyl-related deaths more than doubled in 2022.

Narcan, the name brand of naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug, has already garnered increased funding locally, but THRA’s Cate Graziani says “we want to see strategies beyond just Narcan.” She says housing access is critical, as drug users “are often turned away or kicked out [of] programs that are supposed to be housing-first.” Graziani says expanding access to sterile syringes and fentanyl test strips – which the Legislature has failed to legalize despite bipartisan support – is also integral to users’ health and safety.

Aaron Ferguson with Community Medical Services (CMS) says another big missing piece is access to methadone, an opioid dependence treatment that is much less available than buprenorphine. Unlike buprenorphine, methadone doesn't require a person to stop using drugs to get it. But CMS is one of only two clinics that offer methadone treatment in Austin – the other being Integral Care’s Second Street location – but the medication is not approved under Central Health’s Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) program elsewhere.

Ferguson says without Medicaid covering methadone, only a medical doctor can prescribe it, which raises barriers for organizations like CMS to provide it reliably and consistently. So, funding has to come from local bodies, and “historically, it's gone toward inpatient, abstinence-based detox – unsubstantiated treatments, with no evidence to show that they reduce mortality. It's a tragedy, we have the gold standard, it’s just behind lock and key.”

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