In Rural America, Deadly Costs of Opioids Outweigh the Dollars Tagged to Address Them

Some people say it’s reasonable for densely populated areas to receive more settlement funds, since they serve more of those affected. But others worry this overlooks rural communities disproportionately harmed by opioid addiction.

Tim Buck knows by heart how many people died from drug overdoses in his North Carolina county last year: 10. The year before it was 12 — an all-time high.

Those losses reverberate deeply in rural Pamlico County, a tightknit community of 12,000 on the state’s eastern shore. Over the past decade, it’s had the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in North Carolina.

“Most folks know these individuals or know somebody who knows them,” said Buck, the county manager and a lifelong resident, who will proudly tell anyone that four generations of his family have called the area home. “We all feel it and we hate it when our folks hurt.”

Now, the county is receiving money from national settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors to address the crisis. But by the time those billions of dollars are divided among states and localities, using formulas partially based on population, what trickles down to hard-hit places like Pamlico County can be a trifling sum.

Out of one multibillion-dollar national settlement, Pamlico County is set to receive about $773,000 over nearly two decades. By contrast, Wake County, home to the capital city of Raleigh, is set to receive $36 million during the same period, even though its opioid overdose death rate for the past decade ranked 87th in the state.

Buck said his county’s share “is not a lot of funds per year. But I’m glad we have something to try to reduce that overdose number.”

Rural communities across America were harbingers of the opioid crisis. In the 1990s, misleading marketing by opioid companies helped drive up prescription rates, particularly in coal, lumber, and manufacturing towns across Appalachia and Maine. As painkillers flooded communities, some residents became addicted. Over time, they started using heroin and fentanyl, and the deadly epidemic spilled into suburbs and cities across the nation.

State and local governments filed thousands of lawsuits against drug companies and wholesalers accused of fueling the crisis, resulting in a plethora of settlement deals. The largest to date is a $26 billion settlement that began paying out this year.

As the funds arrive, some people say it’s reasonable for densely populated cities and counties to receive more, as they serve a greater number of residents. But others worry such an approach misses an opportunity to use that money to make a difference in rural communities that have been disproportionately affected for decades.

“You could really diminish what is effectively generational, more than 20 years of harm in rural areas,” said Robert Pack, co-director of East Tennessee State University’s Addiction Science Center.

Just because rural areas are less populated doesn’t mean it’s cheaper to provide health services there. Research suggests the per-person cost can be greater when counties can’t capitalize on economies of scale.

In West Virginia, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has rejected several national opioid settlements because of their distribution methods and pursued separate lawsuits instead, saying the state needs a deal that reflects the severity of its crisis, not the size of its population.

Allocations from the $26 billion national settlement were determined by each state's population and the portion of overdose deaths, residents with opioid use disorders, and prescription painkillers it contributed to the nation’s total. Many states used similar formulas to distribute funds among their cities and counties.

Although the goal was to reflect the severity of each area’s crisis, those statistics tend to scale up by population. Further, some experts say wealthier communities with higher rates of prescription drug use may benefit while poorer communities affected by heroin and fentanyl may lose out.

Pennsylvania took a different route, devising its own formula to distribute funds among 67 counties — taking into account opioid-related hospitalizations and first responders’ administration of naloxone, an overdose reversal medication. When that formula left 11 rural counties without “enough money to make an impact,” the state decided each county would receive a minimum of $1 million over the 18-year settlement period, said Glenn Sterner, an assistant professor at Penn State who helped develop the state formula and co-authored a paper on it.

In other parts of the country without guaranteed minimums, some local officials say their share of the settlement funds won’t cover one psychologist’s salary, let alone the creation of treatment facilities.

But medical treatment — among the most expensive interventions — is just one piece of the puzzle, said Nidhi Sachdeva, who leads health and opioid initiatives for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. She recommends that rural counties explore lower-cost, evidence-based options like distributing naloxone, funding syringe service programs, or connecting people to housing or employment.

Another option is to pool resources among counties. In eastern North Carolina, Martin, Tyrrell, and Washington counties plan to funnel their settlement dollars into a long-standing regional health department, said David Clegg, manager and attorney for Tyrrell County. With a combined population of 36,000, the three counties have used a similar approach in combating covid-19 and sexually transmitted infections.

When it comes to funding, “we’re always the caboose of the train,” Clegg said of his county. “We couldn’t function if we didn’t partner for lots of different services.”

In Colorado, pooling funds is built into the state’s model for managing opioid settlement money. The lion’s share of funds is going to 19 newly formed regions, about half of which comprise multiple counties.

Regions 18 and 19 together have a population of less than 300,000 spread across an area in southeastern Colorado bigger than Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont combined. Since 2016, residents of those regions have landed in the emergency room for opioid overdoses at rates higher than those elsewhere in the state. And in the past decade, people in Regions 18 and 19 have died of opioid overdoses at rates rivaled only by Denver. But combined they are receiving only about 9% of all funds being distributed to the regions.

“It is what it is,” said Wendy Buxton-Andrade, a Prowers County, Colorado, commissioner and chair of the opioid settlement board for Region 19. “We get what we get, we don’t throw a fit, and you just figure out ways to make it work.”

Region 18 was allocated less than $500,000 for six southern Colorado counties for the first year. Lori Laske, an Alamosa County commissioner and chair of the region’s opioid settlement committee, said its members hope to recruit private entities to fill in gaps the funding won’t cover. For example, as of mid-November, her county was in the process of selling a building behind the sheriff’s office to an organization with plans to turn it into a 30-bed recovery center.

“Nobody has paid any attention to our rural areas and this problem for years,” Laske said. The money “is never enough, but it's more than we had, and it's a start.”

The state has set aside 10% of its opioid settlement dollars for what it’s dubbed “infrastructure,” which can include workforce training, telehealth expansion, and transportation to treatment. Any region can apply for that money. The idea “is to provide additional funds for those areas of the state that are hardest hit,” said Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesperson for the Colorado attorney general.

Pack, the expert from East Tennessee State University, said partnering with private companies can help sustain programs after settlement funds run out. For example, a county could build a treatment facility, then find a local hospital to staff it. Or it could partner with local banks and real estate developers to find unused buildings to renovate as recovery houses.

“We need to be creative and make a good business case for those kinds of partnerships,” Pack said.

For counties that aren’t sure where to start, Samantha Karon, who oversees substance use disorder programs for the National Association of Counties, suggested analyzing data and interviewing community members to identify and prioritize gaps in services.

Surry County in northwestern North Carolina, along the Virginia border, undertook this process last year. County staffers and volunteers conducted 55 in-depth interviews, gathered more than 700 responses to an online survey, and reviewed national, state, and local data. They cross-referenced the results with a list of allowable uses for the $9 million in settlement funds they’ll receive over 18 years to create a priority grid.

“It’s a graphic representation of where we should go first,” said Mark Willis, director of the county’s Office of Substance Abuse Recovery.

To his surprise, residents’ top priority wasn’t simply more treatment facilities, but rather a continuum of services to prevent addiction, treat it, and help people in recovery lead stable and successful lives. As a result, his office is considering creating a community recovery center or funding more peer support specialists. The county also plans to continue the assessment process in coming years and shift efforts accordingly.

Meanwhile, in Pamlico County, Buck said he and other leaders are open to all ideas to decrease the overdose deaths that have racked their community.

Although building a treatment center is unrealistic, they’re looking at low-cost programs that can deliver more bang for the buck. They’re also considering investing other county funds into a project early on and reimbursing themselves with settlement payouts in later years, if the agreement allows that.

“We don’t want anybody to die a tragic death,” Buck said. “Our challenge is figuring out what role we can play in preventing that with the funds we have.”


For North Carolina counties, the rates of opioid deaths were calculated by dividing the sum of opioid deaths from 2010 to 2020 by the sum of the annual population estimates from 2010 to 2020. Counts of “illicit opioid deaths” came from the state health department’s Opioid and Substance Use Action Plan Data Dashboard. Deaths involve heroin, fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, or prescription opioids. Data is based on the county of residence, which may differ from where the death occurred. Population estimates came from national Census Bureau data.

Funding estimates for each county come from the North Carolina Opioid Settlements data dashboard and reflect funds from the settlement with Johnson & Johnson and the “Big Three” drug distributors (AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson).

For Colorado, regional rates for opioid deaths were calculated by dividing the sum of opioid deaths from 2010 to 2020 by the sum of annual population estimates from 2010 to 2020. Deaths came from Colorado’s Vital Statistics Program, with cause of death listed as “drug overdose involving any opioid (prescription or illicit, including heroin).”

Regional rates for opioid-related emergency department visits were calculated by dividing the sum of such visits from 2016 to 2021 by the sum of annual population estimates from 2016 to 2021. Emergency department visit counts come from the Colorado health department’s drug overdose dashboard and are for drug overdoses with “any opioid (includes prescription sources, fentanyl and heroin).” They are provided by the patient’s county of residence and were originally compiled by the Colorado Hospital Association.

For both the death rate and emergency department visit rate, regional populations were calculated by adding up the Census Bureau’s annual county totals for member counties. The regions are defined in Exhibit C of Colorado’s Memorandum of Understanding. Regional funding estimates come from the Colorado attorney general’s opioid settlement dashboard and reflect funds from settlements with McKinsey & Co., Johnson & Johnson, and the “Big Three” drug distributors (AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson).

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


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$11M for North Carolina Work-Based Rehab Raises Concerns

As overdoses surge and opioid settlement dollars flow, funding to North Carolina rehab foreshadows national discussion about the best approaches to treatment.

DURHAM, N.C. — An addiction treatment facility, highly regarded by North Carolina lawmakers, sits in a residential neighborhood here and operates like a village in itself. Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, better known as TROSA, hosts roughly 400 people a day on a campus with rows of housing units, cafeterias, a full gym, and a barbershop.

The program, which began in 1994, is uniquely designed: Treatment, housing, and meals are free to participants. And TROSA doesn’t bill insurance. Instead, residents work for about two years in TROSA’s many businesses, including a moving company, thrift store, and lawn care service. Program leaders say the work helps residents overcome addiction and train for future jobs. Of those who graduate, 96% of individuals remain sober and 91% are employed a year later, the program’s latest report claims.

Impressed with such statistics, state lawmakers recently allotted $11 million for TROSA to expand its model to Winston-Salem. It’s the largest amount in the state budget targeted to a single treatment provider and comes on the heels of $6 million North Carolina previously provided for its expansion, as well as $3.2 million TROSA has received in state and federal funds annually for several years.

This latest influx of taxpayer dollars — coming at a time when overdose deaths are surging and each dollar spent on treatment is crucial — is drawing criticism. Advocates, researchers, and some former employees and participants of TROSA say the program takes advantage of participants by making them work without pay and puts their lives at risk by restricting the use of certain medications for opioid use disorder. Although those who graduate may do well, only 25% of participants complete the program — a figure TROSA leaders confirmed.

“If I had known about this funding, I would have been the first person on the mic to [tell lawmakers], ‘I don’t think you all should do this,’” said K.C. Freeman, who interned at TROSA in 2018 and later spent two months on staff in the medical department. “You can’t look at the small number of people who had success and say this works. It’s not the majority.”

The dispute over TROSA’s funding comes amid national conversations about how to allocate billions of dollars available after landmark opioid settlements with drug companies. Two flashpoints in the North Carolina debate may provide a window into heated conversations to come. First: Are work-based rehabs legal or ethical? And second: Should every facility that receives public funding allow participants to use all medications for opioid use disorder?

Work as Treatment

Work-based rehabs are widespread across the country. The investigative news outlet Reveal identified at least 300 such facilities, including some that place participants in dangerous jobs at oil refineries or dairy farms with no training and exploit workers to bolster profits.

Many of these programs use a portion of their revenue to sustain the rehab and offer residents free housing or meals. That can make them attractive to state legislators, said Noah Zatz, a UCLA law professor who specializes in employment and labor law.

“Because essentially they’re running businesses off of people’s uncompensated labor, there is a built-in funding mechanism,” he said. “If the state doesn’t have to pay full freight to run a program … that might be a reason to like it.”

TROSA’s annual reports indicate more than half of its multimillion-dollar budget is funded through its businesses at which residents work, as well as goods and services that are donated to the program. About 30% of its funding comes from government grants and contracts.

Although TROSA and its leaders report no significant campaign donations, they spend upward of $75,000 a year on lobbying. In presentations, they often share a 2017 study — conducted by an independent research institute at TROSA’s request — which found TROSA saves the state nearly $7.5 million annually in criminal justice and emergency care costs.

The program’s self-financing aspect is part of its appeal for North Carolina Sen. Joyce Krawiec, a Republican who represents part of Forsyth County, where TROSA is building its new site.

“The good thing about TROSA: They raised most of their own funds,” she said in a phone interview.

It’s reasonable that residents don’t get paid for their work, she added, since they’re already receiving free treatment and housing. Other rehabs can be prohibitively expensive for many families, so TROSA provides a much-needed option.

But being a bargain doesn’t necessarily make it legal, Zatz and other labor experts said. A previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling suggests nonprofits that run businesses without paying employees could violate the Fair Labor Standards Act.

But TROSA administrators say they are not an employer; they are a therapeutic community. Clear policies guard against the exploitation of anyone, said Keith Artin, president and CEO. The jobs provide residents with structure and an opportunity to change their behaviors.

“The work-based element is essential to recovery,” Artin said. “We’re teaching people how to live.”

Toward the end of residents’ two-year stays, TROSA assists them in job-hunting and allows them to live on campus for several months while they work at a newfound job and build savings.

Diverging Work Experiences

TROSA’s model has widespread support among lawmakers and families affected by addiction. Benjamin Weston said it was “a blessing.”

Weston said he started using cocaine as a teenager and struggled with addiction for years. At 22, he entered TROSA. He said he was grateful for two years of free treatment.

After brief assignments in TROSA’s thrift store and moving company, Weston transitioned to the development office, where he solicited donations from local businesses. “It was meaningful work that also taught me a lot of good job skills,” he said.

Since graduating in 2016, Weston has worked in development for Hope Connection International, a nonprofit his mother started to support survivors of abuse and addiction.

Other graduates interviewed for this article talked about using the moving skills or commercial driving licenses they gained to obtain full-time jobs. Some said they’re buying houses and starting families — successes they credit to their experience in the program.

But not every resident finds the work model therapeutic. Several described working 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, in physically demanding moving or lawn care businesses. Several said there was little time for therapy and, with only a handful of counselors for hundreds of residents, wait times for a session could span weeks.

Freeman, the former TROSA employee who has a master’s in social work, said he thought residents rarely had an opportunity to process the trauma that made them use drugs in the first place. Although Freeman did not counsel clients — his role at TROSA focused on ordering and stocking medications — he said he noticed many graduates returned repeatedly to the program, struggling to stay away from substances once they left campus.

Richard Osborne first heard of TROSA while incarcerated on drug and theft-related charges. Like 38% of TROSA residents, he chose to attend the program as a condition of his probation.

One day in 2017, Osborne and other residents working with the moving company were unloading large boards of plywood from a trailer, when a board fell and smashed him against the trailer, he said. His vision became blurry and he worried about having a concussion, he said.

As he remembers it, no one suggested medical care. “The next day, they told me I had to get back to work,” he claimed.

That’s when Osborne said he decided to leave.

Today, Osborne, 31, said he has not used drugs in about four years, holds a steady job, and has a loving family. But it’s no thanks to TROSA, he said.

“They’re taking advantage of people at their low points in life,” he said. The moving company brings in $4 million a year, yet residents who work for it are not even allowed to keep tips, he added.

TROSA leaders confirmed the tips policy but said they could not comment on an individual residents’ experience. In general, CEO Artin wrote in an email, “when a resident is injured we ensure that they receive immediate medical attention and would never knowingly put a resident at risk.”

As a nonprofit, TROSA funnels revenue from its businesses back into the treatment program, he added.

The program’s 2020 tax documents show its top five employees combined earned over $750,000 in salary and benefits.

Medication Hesitancy

TROSA provides psychiatric care through a contract with Duke Health and offers group or individual counseling to residents who request it. The program employs four full-time counselors and partners with local providers who donate physical therapy, dental care, and other medical services.

But TROSA does not provide access to some of the most effective treatments for opioid use disorder: methadone and buprenorphine. Both medications activate opioid receptors in the brain and reduce opioid withdrawal and cravings. It’s been well documented that these medications greatly reduce the risk of opioid overdose death, and the FDA-approved drugs are considered the “gold standard” for treatment.

Right now, TROSA leaders say the only medication for opioid use disorder the program offers is naltrexone, an injectable medication that works differently than the other two because it requires patients to fully detox to be effective. Because of this, some experts are hesitant to use it, saying it puts people at higher risk of overdose death.

About one-third of TROSA participants report opioids are their primary drug of choice.

TROSA leaders said they’ve discussed adding the other addiction treatment medications but face logistical barriers. All medications at TROSA are self-administered, and leaders worry about diversion of oral methadone and buprenorphine, which are classified as controlled substances. They say they’d consider injectable buprenorphine, but it’s costly for their mostly uninsured participants.

“People choose to come here because it is a behavior modification program,” said Lisa Finlay, lead clinical counselor at TROSA. “They know that we don’t offer buprenorphine or those medications. We have people who have tried those medications in the past and believe that they actually led them back to using.”

Evidence suggests that people using medications for opioid use disorder have the best outcomes when they have access to other recovery support services, such as housing, employment, counseling, and a community. But while clinicians across the country have embraced these medications, leaders of residential treatment programs founded in the more traditional 12-step, abstinence-based recovery model have pushed back.

Some old-school recovery leaders claim the use of medications is simply replacing one drug with another, which has created stigma around this form of treatment.

A 2020 study found that about 40% of residential programs surveyed in the U.S. didn’t offer opioid use disorder medications and 20% actively discouraged people from using them. In North Carolina, there are 62 licensed long-term residential treatment facilities, according to the SAMHSA treatment locator, and fewer than half accept patients who take these medications. Only 12 facilities are licensed to prescribe buprenorphine.

This has resulted in tough conversations with patients for Kate Roberts, a clinical social worker on a UNC Health team that treats people with severe IV drug-related infections. Once patients are stabilized, many start buprenorphine, she said. Some say they want to go to a residential program for structure, job training, and to learn coping skills. Roberts recalled one patient saying to her: “I need to go to residential treatment and I need this medication because I fear I’ll die.”

“That’s really heartbreaking to hear a patient clearly articulate what it is that they need … which is in line with the [research] literature,” she said. “And that you know there are very few places in the state that offer that.”

Doctors and public health experts nationwide are pushing for lawmakers to fund rehab facilities that allow these medications, saying they’re the best way to combat the opioid crisis. Some medical and legal experts have said it’s in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act to deny recovery services such as housing to people using medications for opioid use disorder. Health experts say that funding abstinence-based addiction programs could also inadvertently cause more overdoses if people leave the program and return to using drugs with a much lower tolerance, especially as fentanyl is rampant in the street drug supply.

These conversations will become only more important as opioid settlement funds arrive, said Bradley Stein, director of the national Rand Opioid Policy Center.

“The goal isn’t just to get people into treatment; it’s to get people doing better,” he said. “You want to make sure that you’re using the money effectively.”

The conversations have begun in North Carolina. When Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Durham) tweeted his support for TROSA late last year, clinicians reached out to him explaining their concerns about the program not allowing participants to use methadone or buprenorphine.

Although Meyer still believes it’s an effective program, he said, “I also have concerns from what I learned about TROSA’s approach to treating opioid addiction in particular. I’d like to see TROSA consider what their current practices are.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).