As Minnesota deals with an early summer spike in drug overdoses, some of the suppliers who put the lifesaving Narcan treatments on the street are finding out their government funding is being cut, if not eliminated.
Valhalla Place and the Steve Rummler HOPE Network are Minnesota’s largest community providers of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. They provide naloxone kits and overdose training free of charge to those who need them, serving everyone from addicts and families to homeless shelters and reservations.
For the past two years, their distribution efforts were supported by federal grant money from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The federal agency gave Minnesota a $10.6 million grant in 2017 to help prevent opioid overdose deaths. The Minnesota Department of Human Services allocated that money to more than 40 state agencies, tribes, counties and community partners for prevention, treatment and recovery services that included naloxone distribution.
Late last year, Minnesota was awarded a two-year, $17.7 million opioid response grant to continue these efforts, according to the Department of Human Services. But despite the federal funding bump, the two community naloxone suppliers say the money they receive will be reduced or cut off entirely.
Stephanie Devich, who oversees naloxone distribution for Valhalla Place, said her group was told it will receive no new grant funding.
Valhalla received roughly $400,000 from the previous two-year grant. The money helped the community organization distribute 28,000 naloxone kits in 2018 that reversed a total of 3,011 opioid overdoses, Devich said.
“The state has kind of got us at a standstill on naloxone distribution,” Devich said, noting that what Valhalla has left may have to be rationed. She added that she is trying to find money within her organization to continue distribution; Valhalla Place is a for-profit entity.
The Steve Rummler HOPE Network, which distributed about 11,000 naloxone kits last year, is still in talks with the Department of Human Services, said executive director Lexi Reed Holtum. She is hopeful for funding from the new opioid response grant but said it likely will not meet her group’s needs.
“We are in negotiations still, but I’m very aware that the state didn’t get enough money to give us what we need,” Reed Holtum said. “I’m nervous and I’m on edge and I’m looking for ways to support what we do.”
In an emailed statement, the Minnesota Department of Human Services said the state intends to give out the same amount of grant money — $1 million — for naloxone distribution. But officials declined to say which entities will receive funding because contracts are still being negotiated.
“Naloxone is an important part of the state’s response to addressing the opioid crisis,” the department wrote in its statement. “We are always looking for additional funding to support community organizations in their work to respond to overdoses, as well as ensuring access to treatment and recovery resources.”
Overdose spike amplifies concerns
The uncertainty over who will provide naloxone to communities across the state has been amplified by a recent spike in drug overdoses.
There were 175 drug overdoses — 17 of them fatal — recorded by law enforcement over the past two weeks, according to Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Because of the funding worries, Devich said Valhalla Place will give out less naloxone as they ration it to last through the coming months.
“I can’t distribute anything because I’m afraid, what if that gap is not filled?” Devich said.
Reed Holtum argued that the naloxone given out by Valhalla Place and the Steve Rummler HOPE Network is continuing to save lives. And she said it is “very disconcerting” that some groups may get less money for naloxone distribution when opioid overdose deaths continue to rise each year.
“If anybody believes that we are at the point where things are OK and they’re getting better, that’s a falsehood,” Reed Holtum said. “We fully expect that things are going to get much, much worse.”
Where will the grant money go?
The Department of Human Services says it is distributing the same amount of grant funding for naloxone distribution, even though none of it appears to be going to Valhalla Place and the Steve Rummler HOPE Network may get less than it did in past years.
Because contract negotiations are ongoing, officials will not say where the money is going.
Devich warned there are risks in switching to a new supplier.
Over the past few years, she said, Valhalla Place and the Steve Rummler HOPE Network have refined their operations and built valuable relationships with state communities.
“Word of mouth travels fast when you’ve made relationships in the community and people trust you,” Devich said. “The active drug user doesn’t trust everybody because of the way they’re treated.”