Talking Politics

Why the opioid epidemic remains front and center in R.I.

By Ian Donnis
Posted 2/8/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: For most people, the opioid epidemic is probably out of sight, out of mind. But Rhode Island is still reaping the whirlwind from the epidemic, as those who struggle with addiction …

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Talking Politics

Why the opioid epidemic remains front and center in R.I.

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: For most people, the opioid epidemic is probably out of sight, out of mind. But Rhode Island is still reaping the whirlwind from the epidemic, as those who struggle with addiction and their friends and family members know. Just last week, the state Department of Health put out an alert warning of heightened opioid overdoses in Charlestown, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Westerly and Block Island.

In many ways, the roots of the crisis can be traced to Purdue Pharma’s introduction of Oxycontin in the mid-1990s, and how it was aggressively marketed as a non-addictive remedy for a variety of pain-related ailments. (Some of the company’s drugs were manufactured by subsidiaries in Coventry.)

The reckoning took years to develop, triggering an eventual wave of litigation against Purdue Pharma and the family that owned it, the Sacklers. Still, as Patrick Radden Keefe recounts in his authoritative history “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family,” Purdue’s super-wealthy owners were able to have their way for years with such putative regulators as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Although the Sacklers became pariahs — with their name stripped from a number of prominent universities and museums after decades of philanthropy — they were also able to retain most of their multi-billion-dollar fortune.

“That’s a viewpoint that some would have, and it’s not wrong,” Attorney General Peter Neronha said during an interview this week on Political Roundtable. “[A] lot of the Sacklers’ assets had been moved offshore, and we didn’t have insight into what those assets were.”

Neronha said that influenced his decision to hold out with eight other state attorneys general for a stronger settlement last year with Purdue and the Sacklers, raising Rhode Island’s share from $20 million to $45 million.

Still, if this money is coming to the state and Rhode Island is still bearing the brunt of opioid addiction, what will it take to curb the epidemic? Neronha said the Purdue money, combined with more recent settlement funds from the Big Three pharmacy chains (“all-in almost $250 million in cash alone”), is starting to flow into the state and will expand treatment efforts.

“So that's going to make an impact,” Neronha said. “There's no doubt in my mind. Look, it's not going to be cured overnight. It's not going to be solved overnight. But these resources are going to go a long way to helping people get into recovery, and successfully completed, I hope.”

 

TYRE NICHOLS: With Tyre Nichols being laid to rest in Memphis last week, AG Neronha said he thinks police in Rhode Island are getting the training necessary to reduce the risk of having a minor traffic stop escalate into a fatal encounter. “Our Police Chiefs Association, and through what's called the POST, the Police Officer Standards and Training, the municipal Academy, the Providence Academy and the State Police Academy, are training their officers really well. Now, that said, we saw that we had our own share of incidents here, you know, small percentage compared to the overall interactions with police. But certainly, training is really important … I go back to the body cameras … the body cameras really shed light on the interactions between police and the public.

“And you know, that should be a disincentive for police officers to act in ways that could lead to bad outcomes. And it's also a check on, frankly, the public, so that when they make allegations against police that aren't accurate, we see that as well. That's why I really believe the body cam program that we did here in Rhode Island in the last year or so — is so important to building trust in our system and you know, holding people accountable when they don't do the right thing.”

 

WINTER’S BITE: Rhode Island’s most vulnerable residents clearly bear the brunt of extreme weather, including the bitter cold this weekend. Eric Hirsch, the Providence College professor who co-chairs the state’s Homeless Management Information Systems Steering Committee, said 306 people are thought to have spent a night outside in the last two weeks. A lot of those unhoused individuals were expected to move inside as the mercury dipped, Hirsch tells my colleague Lynn Arditi, although this bad weather comes amid a gap in the state’s housing leadership. And as of Thursday, there were no indoor toilets or running water in a shelter at the Providence Armory.

 

STRAIGHT OUT OF CRANSTON: Twenty years ago, when Steve Laffey built a statewide profile as the mayor of Cranston, it was clear he had his sights set on other things. Sure enough, he ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, challenging then-Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, and came up short. Some thought Laffey would run for governor, and given the razor thin margin by which Chafee won in 2010, we can only wonder how things might have been different.

Regardless, Laffey left for Colorado, grumping that Rhode Island wasn’t serious about change. Now, after making losing runs for Congress in the Rocky Mountain State, Laffey is making a GOP run for president.

The former Rhode Islander faces a tough climb, since he lacks the name-recognition, institutional support and fundraising prowess of a Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. But Laffey has the certitude of a true believer, and he’s always been good at retail politics. If his goal is to focus attention on the health of Social Security, that could have civic merit.

Still, the clarity of Laffey’s crystal ball is subject to dispute. Speaking in 2010 at the O Club in North Kingstown, he said that without changes to Rhode Island’s property tax system, “The area from Warwick to North Providence to East Providence over to Johnston, in 15, 20 years, is Detroit. It’s that serious.”

 

CUMBERLAND: Gov. Dan McKee’s $13.7 billion budget proposal includes $6.5 million from RI Capital plan funds to renovate a 20,000-square-foot building in Cumberland for the state Medical Examiner’s office. That’s noteworthy since Cumberland is the governor’s home community. Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the state Department of Health, said the change is being made since the state lab and the ME’s office have outgrown their current building on Orms Street in Providence “and the facility is in significant disrepair …. The location in Cumberland was previously occupied by a company that procured bodies to teach surgical techniques. When the state was exploring different sites for a new Medical Examiner location, this site was ideal because the spaces and setup were similar to what an ME’s office uses. Other sites would have likely required some remodeling.”

As it turns out, the plan pre-dates McKee’s time as governor. Laura Hart, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, said the property at 900 Highland Corporate Drive, Building 3, “was acquired in November 2020 under a sole source [process] during the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

 

ON THE MOVE: It was just a few weeks ago when Dr. Megan Ranney, deputy dean of Brown University’s School of Public Heath, guested on Political Roundtable, moving easily and thoughtfully between questions about COVID, treating gun violence as a public health issue and reconciling her football fandom with her career as a physician. Now comes word that Ranney will be leaving Rhode Island for a new gig, as dean of the Yale School of Public Health. It’s a bittersweet change, since Ranney’s friends and supporters are happy for her opportunity, while also feeling sad that this engaging physician and spokeswoman for public health is leaving the state.

 

RI POLI-MEDIA PEOPLE ON THE MOVE: Former WJAR-TV investigative reporter Katie Davis revealed via Facebook that she’s going to work at Fidelity Investments … Alana Cerrone, who left ABC6 for a comms job with Gov. Dan McKee, has a new gig with the Providence Tourism Improvement District …. I knew Jeff Emidy back when he was an ace hurler for the Wild Colonials in the Providence Coed Softball League. He moved up this week as executive director of the RI Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission …. The estimable Brent Runyon is leaving as exec director after almost 10 years with the Providence Preservation Society …. WPRI-TV investigative reporter Tolly Taylor has indicated he’s leaving for a yet-to-be-announced job.

 

TAKES OF THE WEEK: Various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.

State Rep. Leonela Felix (D-Pawtucket): “This week, the Rhode Island Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian-American and Pacific Islander Caucus (formerly known as the RI Legislative Black and Latino Caucus) hosted our annual Black History Month kickoff to celebrate and honor RI’s Black community, its culture and businesses. The RIBLIA caucus brought together dozens of vendors, artists and elected officials from the Black community to the State House to celebrate the richness and diversity that exists within our state and history that has contributed so much to Rhode Island.

“This was also a time to come together and in a collective breath to acknowledge the pain and tragedy unfolding, yet again, before our very eyes, due to Tyre Nichols’ brutal killing at the hands of Memphis police. This tragic event is yet another reminder of the systemic disparities that fall squarely on the shoulders of Black, Indigenous, and communities of color in this country. As legislators of color in RI, we renew our commitment to acknowledge and address these disparities, one law and one department at a time. The RIBLIA Caucus has met twice in 2023 and will be working on our priorities for this session, which will most likely include legislation to continue to reform our criminal legal system.

“Let the life of Tyre Nichols serve as an inspiration to us all to remember the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Protecting Black Rhode Islanders should be a priority for the governor and General Assembly. My hope is that together, we can work to pass meaningful reforms before a tragedy strikes our community.”

 

RI House GOP Leader Mike Chippendale of Foster: “The proposed ‘assault weapons’ ban in Rhode Island is more of the same, from the same crowd. While courts at every level across the country are striking down these types of laws, the ‘political mileage’ is clearly far more important to those sponsoring this initiative than the constitutional concerns.

“I’m certain the recent news of the man who used an AR-15 to kill his landlord in a gunfight will be invoked, but the perpetrator of that crime was already prohibited from owning a firearm; it was a so-called ‘Ghost gun,’ which is banned; he had several ‘high capacity’ magazines which are banned, and it had a barrel that was illegal for a rifle. If none of the 6-12 existing “gun safety” laws that he violated didn’t stop him, who is so foolish as to think one more will? Not I.”

 

Robert A. Walsh Jr., former executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island: “Gov. McKee’s laudable goal of bringing Rhode Island student achievement on par with Massachusetts by 2030 will need to focus on multiple elements. We already know that the two biggest external factors predicting a student’s educational success are the mother’s education level and the families’ socioeconomic status. Rhode Island has a lot of ground to make up in both areas.

“Inside the classroom, significant predictors of student success are high-quality teachers and education support professionals. If Rhode Island policy makers are serious about attracting and retaining high quality educators, salaries, benefits and retirement security must be made competitive not only with those provided to Massachusetts educators, but with other jobs that require similar levels of education and on-going professional development.

“It is time to revisit and improve upon the significant cuts made to educator retirement benefits, make educator compensation competitive, and finally address the Rhode Island oddity of how approximately half the teaching workforce is excluded from Social Security, (which is particularly detrimental to recruiting teachers mid-career from other professions).

“If we are serious about improving student achievement, keeping a robust workforce in our classrooms is crucial. We know what needs to be done. Perhaps if Rhode Island had the constitutional protections for public education that Massachusetts enjoys, we would not be in this situation in the first place, but, even without that protection, our elected officials and policy makers can start to act now to meet our ambitious goals.”

 

State Rep. David Morales (D-Providence): “Despite a lack of attention, our state is on the brink of a human services crisis. Starting next month, working people, families, and seniors will see their SNAP (food stamps) benefits significantly reduced, due to the federal government’s lack of action to renew the COVID-19 emergency SNAP allotments. This will hurt over 85,000 Rhode Island households and further exacerbate food insecurity. To make matters worse, starting in April, thousands of Rhode Islanders will be set to lose their Medicaid coverage due to expiring COVID protections that had previously expanded eligibility coverage. It doesn’t have to be this way, however.

“Our state can and should provide supplemental funding for SNAP benefits, offer further investments to our local food banks, and delay Medicaid renewals until the end of the year. Otherwise, people across our communities will be in for a rude awakening over the next several months as they find themselves with less resources for food and healthcare, both of which are basic human rights.”

 

Executive Director of the Economic Progress Institute Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: “As a Black woman and leader, this was a hard week for me with the murder of Tyre Nichols and his funeral on the first day of Black History Month. The theme of this year’s Black History Month, Black Resistance, was the perfect reminder that resistance includes the continuous fight for justice even when it gets hard. And so, this week, I honor the Rhode Island leaders, advocates, and allies who embody resistance with a true commitment to address racial, ethnic, gender, and other disparities.

“We must continue to fight for policies, programs, and state expenditures that are centered in equity and justice, including affordable housing and childcare, paid leave, a living wage, workforce development, and a justice system that respects and honors black lives. Black resistance also includes Black Joy, so take some time to renew your energy, make someone smile, dance, and celebrate the people around you.”

 

SHORE ENOUGH: A recent vacation to Hawaii with Mrs. TGIF revealed the ease with which people in Oahu can get access to all kinds of beachfront around the island. According to state law, “The public has a right of access along the beaches and shorelines in the State situated below the ‘upper reaches of the wash of the waves.’” Here in Rhode Island, pitched battles have played out over shoreline access in some cases, as my colleague Alex Nunes has reported in detail. Most recently, the fight for access to a Westerly beach has moved forward, and Attorney General Peter Neronha said his priorities for 2023 include pushing for more public access.

 

KICKER: When an email rolled in earlier this week about “Date Meets ZIP Event at Fiskeville Post Office,” it conjured an initial thought of speed-dating while buying stamps. But the tease is actually about a charming event set for Wednesday in Cranston: “It only happens once every hundred years when the local ZIP code (02823) aligns with the current date (02/8/23). A special pictorial postmark has been designed for the day to use on your outgoing mail. The office will be serving coffee and light refreshments to customers to commemorate this special occasion.”

Meanwhile, Cranston’s resourceful elections director, Nick Lima, shared this Fun Fact: “The Fiskeville post office doesn’t actually deliver mail. 02823 is a PO Box-only @USPS ZIP Code. We've asked USPS to consider establishing regular mail delivery for the couple hundred residents that live in Fiskeville who - for an unknown reason - have to use a PO Box.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org

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