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Michigan aims to remedy ‘egregious injustice,' as tribes shut out of opioid funds

The Saginaw Chippewa Behavioral Health Center in Mt. Pleasant. It's a brick government building
The Saginaw Chippewa Behavioral Health Center in Mt. Pleasant could expand its substance abuse services if the state allocates opioid settlement funds to Michigan’s tribes. (Bridge courtesy photo)
  • Native Americans are disproportionately affected by substance use disorder
  • The state has received more than $100 million from a national opioid settlement fund, but not given tribes a share
  • There’s a chance tribes will get some funding for addiction services in next year’s budget 

The south side of the Saginaw Chippewa Behavioral Health Center in Mount Pleasant is a 24-bed residential treatment center, one of only two operated by the dozen federally recognized tribes based in Michigan.

There, in the modern, one-story brick building, tribal members who need intensive support for their substance use disorder receive counseling and medication-assisted treatment, while surrounded by traditional Native American culture and care. There are sweat lodges, Anishinaabe language classes and “smudging,” a healing and meditation practice involving the burning of sage or tobacco.

Providing addiction services in an underserved area, among a population with crushing rates of substance use, the center seems like a perfect candidate for the opioid settlement funds flooding into the state.


But unlike some other states, Michigan hasn’t shared any funds from national settlements with its tribes, something one tribal leader calls an “egregious injustice.”

That may change in the next state budget, which is being negotiated now.  Budget proposals by the Senate and House both have a $5 million allocation from opioid settlement funds to the tribes to use as they see fit. The 2024-25 budget proposal of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has no carveout for the tribes.


Michigan is expected to get $1.6 billion over 18 years from a national settlement with opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies for their role in the spread of the opioid epidemic. The state and local units of government had already received $181 million by the end of 2023 to address a crisis that has killed more than 11,000 Michiganders since 2018, an average of one every four hours.

Counties, cities and townships have gotten about $58 million so far, with the state government pocketing the other $123 million. State officials can decide how best to use those funds. The majority of those state funds have not yet been spent.

In the first two budget years since the state began receiving funds, the state hasn’t given any money to the tribes, even though Native Americans have one of the highest rates of addiction and overdose deaths among ethnic groups.

Even if Michigan doles out $5 million to the tribes, it will be significantly less than what other states are doing. Wisconsin plans to give $6 million of the $36 million it will receive in fiscal year 2025 to its tribes for prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery efforts. Minnesota has given $9.4 million to its tribes since 2020; Washington has given $15 million to its 29 sovereign tribes, and Oregon has distributed $44 million to tribes, a whopping 30 percent of its total funds.

Michigan not allocating funds to address tribal addiction problems is an “egregious injustice,” Dorie Rios, tribal chairperson, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi in Kalamazoo County, said in a written statement to Bridge Michigan.

“Opioid addiction is a serious and pervasive public health, human rights, and social justice issue affecting our tribal communities,” Rios said. “Tribal communities experience the second-highest rate of overdose deaths and the highest suicide rate in Michigan.”

Currently, the tribes can apply for competitive grants, but they are not allocated funds directly to use as they see fit. The Opioid Advisory Commission, established by the Legislature to make recommendations to battle the epidemic, recently recommended the state provide funds to the tribes.

“We hope this will positively impact our Indigenous communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the opioid crisis,” OAC chairperson Cara Poland told Bridge.

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he’s hopeful that an allocation to the tribes will survive budget negotiations.

“The tribes have knowledge and connection with their own communities and to the broader rural communities they often serve,” Irwin said. “They’re in a position to see the need and address the need.”

Whitmer spokesperson Robert Leddy said the state's share of opioid settlement funds "will bring much-needed resources for areas in need — including tribal governments — to invest in supports, improvements, and enhancements to further our efforts to decrease substance use disorders...  We will continue to work with the Legislature to get these funds into the right hands." 

Sarah Winchell-Gurski, residential treatment manager of behavioral health for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, said opioid settlement funds would help the tribe’s clinic expand its services to more people as well as provide the kind of wraparound services that help people stay sober. 

For example, a transportation service for clients the center now provides is funded by a grant that ends this year.


“We provide transportation to any appointment that helps people maintain their recovery, (such as) going to meet with your probation officer, attending an AA meeting, going to a job interview.”

That service could disappear without additional funds, Winchell-Gurski said.

A one-month injection of Suboxone, a methadone-like medication used to treat opioid use disorder, costs $1,200, and some clients take the medication for more than a year, Winchell-Gurski said.

Michigan’s tribes deserve a share of the state’s opioid settlement funds to help their members, said Rios, chairperson, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi. “Tribal citizens are Michigan citizens, (who) are the intended beneficiaries of the assistance this money will provide,” Rios said.

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