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Adviser blasts Whitmer aides over handling of Michigan opioid settlement

Michigan will receive about $1.5 billion in national settlement funds to address the opioid crisis. (Shutterstock)
  • A top adviser on Michigan’s $1.5 billion opioid settlement says Whitmer’s aides are shutting her group out
  • The complaints follow those that counties and local governments are slow to spend their share of the money
  • One lawmaker says the situation ‘borders on the absurd’

The leader of a group advising lawmakers on spending $1.5 billion coming to Michigan from a national opioids lawsuit settlement says Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is withholding information and won’t help the panel.

The 12-member Michigan Opioid Advisory Commission is charged with making recommendations to close coverage gaps, but Michigan Health and Human Services officials have withheld data and other resources, said the group’s chair, Dr. Cara Poland.


At one point, “it was explained to me by the (health) department that they had no obligation to provide us with … information, and we were advised to utilize Google,” Poland told members of the state Senate’s budget subcommittee on health and human services on Wednesday.

The testimony comes atop recent reporting from Bridge Michigan that local communities — which are receiving half the settlement money coming over 18 years — are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars intended to help an epidemic that killed 11,000 residents from 2018 through June 2023. That is one every four hours.

“Since this hearing started, at least one more Michigander has died of preventable death associated with addiction and mental health,” Poland said on Tuesday. 

“The time for change is now.” 

Lawmakers created the advisory panel in 2022 to help advise lawmakers how to spend the state's share of funds.

Despite repeated attempts to reach out to the health department, the commission has been frustrated by a lack of responses, said Poland, who is a board-certified addiction medicine doctor.

“Information should not reach the (commission) through reporters’ articles and Twitter or postings of documents received through FOIA requests by reporters,” she told lawmakers.

Last year, Poland had hinted at transparency concerns when she appeared before the same subcommittee.

Dr. Cara Poland
Since this hearing started, at least one more Michigander has died” of addiction, Dr. Cara Poland, chairperson of the Opioid Advisory Commission, told lawmakers Wednesday. (Courtesy photo)

“It has felt at times that there has not been meaningful collaboration or bidirectional flow of information,” she told state representatives in October.

There have been “no substantive changes,” since then, she told senators Wednesday. 

Poland referred to a 20-slide presentation that Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state health department’s chief medical executive, shared with senators earlier in the meeting.

“Today was the first time that we saw any of those slides. Anything that was presented by Dr. Bagdasarian today was new information for the (advisory commission),” Poland said.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in an emailed response to Bridge, said the department “remains committed to transparency regarding the opioid settlement funds and how these dollars are being spent to help address the opioids crisis.”

“We have made information available online with extensive details and will continue to engage with stakeholders, including Dr. Poland, as we have on numerous occasions,” wrote MDHHS spokesperson Chelsea Wuth, including the link in the email

At the hearing,  Tommy Stallworth, a senior adviser to Whitmer, told lawmakers “multiple governance structures” are part of the confusion.

He said Poland’s group — the Opioids Advisory Commission — is charged with “more of a review process,” while a separate group, Whitmer’s Opioid Task Force, is “more anchored in implementation” of spending.

Meanwhile, a host of local governments — from counties and tribes to cities and townships — is also making independent decisions about spending half the share going to them, Stallworth said.

Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet, D-Bay City, said such a mishmash of spending among local governments “borders on the absurd.”

“That we are recreating the wheel and starting from scratch with each municipality in something that is so pernicious in our state — we'd love to understand the why of that,” she said.

Amy Dolinky, technical adviser at the Michigan Association of Counties, defended the individual work of the counties. The association operates a public dashboard that tracks local government spending.

“What I have seen across all of the counties that I'm working with is everyone is extremely committed to really helping people the best way that they can, as well as a commitment to transparency in their process,” she told lawmakers.

McDonald Rivet said the problem is not one of intent. Conversations about spending decisions reflect a “desperation to fix” Michigan’s drug crisis.

Underscoring the point, Poland’s voice grew shaky as she spoke of her mother, brother and sister-in-law who died of addiction or mental health-related causes. An aunt, she said, died one week ago from addiction.

“I will never again hear their laugh. Each of them left a gaping hole in my family, and it's not OK,” she said.

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