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Opioids now kill more Americans than car accidents. But they're not the only drugs taking lives - in 2017, in nearly a dozen states, opioids were involved in fewer than half of the total drug overdose deaths. And while there are federal grants to fight the opioid epidemic, money to treat other drug addictions can be harder to come by. Carmen Heredia Rodriguez from Kaiser Health News has written about this for NPR's Shots blog. Welcome to the program.
CARMEN HEREDIA RODRIGUEZ: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: Now, you actually spoke to local officials in some of these states. What sort of drug problems do they see most often?
HEREDIA RODRIGUEZ: Sure. So one official that I really got to talk in depth with, his name is David Crowe, and he is from Crawford County, Pa. And this area is on the western side of the state, and it shares a border with Ohio. And both Pennsylvania and Ohio are one of the hotbeds of the opioid crisis. In Pennsylvania alone, over 2,500 people died from an opioid-related overdose in 2017. And Crawford County saw its share of death as well.
And David Crowe, he actually is the director of an organization that received roughly $327,000 from two large federal grants targeted toward the opioid epidemic. But he says that he really doesn't need any more opioid money; what he needs is money to combat the rise in methamphetamine use there.
CORNISH: And it sounds like he's not able to redirect that money?
HEREDIA RODRIGUEZ: He has not. That money is solely earmarked for efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.
CORNISH: So what are the restrictions?
HEREDIA RODRIGUEZ: The restrictions really are just that it needs to be related to helping people that are going through opioid-use disorders. So a lot of people that abuse substances usually abuse multiple substances. So it's pretty rare to find someone that just uses a specific drug, like heroin. So what we're seeing now is that providers are seeing patients that, yes, they do have an opioid issue, but they may also have issues, like a meth addiction, that they aren't able to use these funds to treat them.
CORNISH: What's the solution? What are you hearing?
HEREDIA RODRIGUEZ: So in terms of a solution - I spoke to two drug experts that had something to say about how this money is structured. One of the experts that I spoke to is a former member of the president's commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis. And she said that the nation is facing a true crisis, where people are literally dying in public places, and the federal government did do a good job in giving areas money to reverse the overdoses and really stop deaths.
However, another expert that I spoke to said that the money should be better tailored to make investments in the mental health care system because, obviously, opioid-use disorder is just one of many addictions that people could face.
CORNISH: The backdrop to all of this are these lawsuits - right? - over the opioid crisis, and that there are possible payouts to states from drugmakers that they've sued over the crisis; we've seen this in Oklahoma. What lessons can we draw from your reporting about how that money should be spent?
HEREDIA RODRIGUEZ: So it's a bit difficult to compare the money that comes in from a settlement to the money that comes in from a federal grant because the structures that decide how these moneys are spent are different.
But that being said, one of the lessons that can be learned from this reporting is that we really need to, as a nation, identify the problem that you want to target with this funding. Now that we're seeing some progress being made on reducing the number of opioid-related overdose deaths, one of the drug experts that I spoke to said that we, as a nation, really need to look forward and see how we can allocate resources to really target the cause of why so many Americans are struggling with addiction in the first place.
CORNISH: Carmen Heredia Rodriguez reports for Kaiser Health News. Thank you for speaking with us.
HEREDIA RODRIGUEZ: Thank you so much for having me.
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