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Michigan opioid cash sparks feeding frenzy of vendors, seeking cut of $1.5B

Kalamazoo and St. Clair counties have purchased body scanners for their jails with opioid settlement funds, similar to the scanner shown here in Monroe County Jail. Monroe did not use settlement funds to purchase its scanner. For privacy and security concerns, the scan has been distorted. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)
  • Cities and counties in Michigan are in line to receive more about $725 million in opioid settlement funds
  • Local officials say they are flooded with product offers nearly every day and have trouble weighing their worth
  • Advocates urge Michigan local officials invest in existing community services rather than new gadgets

Katelyn Zeits has become very popular in the past 12 months. The Benzie County administrator has been flooded with emails and phone calls from across the country pitching products for her small county on the shores of Lake Michigan, from out-of-town counseling services to $200,000 body scanners similar to those used in airports.

“They say, ‘Oh, we can use your money like this, this is our equipment, it’s an allowable expenditure (under opioid settlement guidelines),’” Zeits said. “There are so many people out there trying to get a grab of that money.”

About these stories

Michigan is set to receive $1.5 billion from a national settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors. Bridge Michigan interviewed more than four dozen experts, community leaders and researchers. Many expressed worries that Michigan has not set up enough oversight of how the money is being spent.

As opioid deaths mount, Michigan governments sit on millions for intervention

Michigan won’t know how $725M is spent on opioid help. Other states do it better

See how much your Michigan community will get in opioid settlement funds

Michigan county ‘hit ground running’ with opioid plan. Then came the complaints

Has the opioid crisis hit your family? We seek Michigan stories

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On Feb. 28, Bridge reporters and experts will discuss the drug crisis and how Michigan governments are spending the $1.5 billion coming the state’s way. Learn how to sign up here.

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For help with opioid abuse, call the SAMSHA National Hotline, a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year, treatment referral hotline1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Michigan counties, townships and cities are in line to receive about $725 million over 18 years as part of a national settlement of numerous lawsuits against manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies accused of downplaying the risks and ignoring the perils of prescription painkillers, fueling a nationwide opioid crisis.

Combined with money coming into the state, Michigan is in line to receive $1.5 billion total. The state and local governments have already received $181 million, most of it within the past 13 months. From that pot, the tally for local governments is almost $68 million.

From overdose-tracking software to drug test strips, “there’s not a day that really goes by where there isn't some sort of sales email coming to (me),” said Jackson County Health Officer Kristin Pluta.

Advocates hope the money will help curb a crisis that has killed more than 11,000 Michiganders since 2018

Advocates say the best way to save lives is to expand local services and fill gaps in treatment and recovery. But to do that, local officials more accustomed to road repairs and zoning approvals must navigate through a feeding frenzy of vendors hawking merchandise marketed to capture settlement dollars, said Jonathan Stoltman, director of the Opioid Policy Institute in West Michigan.

“There are so many sharks in the water now because there’s so much money,” Stoltman said.


Marketing pitches are an issue nationwide, with companies offering everything from a lasso-like device to help police detain people without Tasers or pepper spray to electrical stimulation devices, according to reporting by KFF Health News.

“I’ve heard (opioid settlement fund pitches for) radar guns to catch speeders, because speeders could be drug dealers,” said Sara Whaley, program director of the Bloomberg Overdose Prevention Initiative at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Any time there are dollar signs, there are for-profit organizations looking for their piece of the pie.”

Naloxbox, a plastic container for Narcan. the box also has information about signs of an overdose
One product being pitched to Michigan jurisdictions is Naloxbox, a plastic container for Narcan. The cheapest model is $260, no Narcan included. (Photo courtesy of

One example: County officials have been pitched on the purchase of Naloxbox, a plastic container for Narcan. The cheapest model retails for $260, no supplies included. The product is promoted as a “new and innovative way” to expand Narcan access, but Stoltman said it’s an overpriced gadget — “like a Tupperware box that’s bolted onto the wall.”

Benzie County’s Zeits told Bridge a company pushed her to buy a $200,000 body scanner for the county’s 40-person capacity jail.

 “They said it’s used in Miami-Dade (Corrections Center),” Zeits said, laughing. “I told them, ‘Have you ever been to Benzie County?’”

Two counties — Kalamazoo and St. Clair — did use opioid settlement funds to buy body scanners for their jails.  Kalamazoo County Commissioners Chair John Taylor told Bridge the body scanner is an added safety measure for county inmates who could overdose if they sneak in drugs. A call to St. Clair County Controller Karry Hepting for comment was not returned.

A white old newspaper box that says Free Narcan
In Bay City, an old newspaper box has been refurbished as a free dispensary for Narcan, a life-saving drug for overdose victims. Some companies are selling Narcan vending machines for up to $7,400. (Bridge courtesy photo from Lori Ziolkowski)

Narcan vending machines are available to Michigan communities at no cost through a program at Wayne State University funded by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

So far, the school has placed 35 machines in 20 counties, according to Danielle Lenz, project coordinator at the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice at Wayne State. Still, there are “multiple vendors who sell these types of machines,” Lenz said, at prices up to $7,400.

Lori Ziolkowski, chapter president of Families Against Narcotics in Bay County, urged local governments to look for simple, inexpensive ways to save lives. Repurposed old newspaper boxes can be set up in public spaces and stocked with Narcan.

One such Narcan newspaper box in downtown Bay City distributes about 100 boxes of the life-saving drug a month, Ziolkowski said.


Recent conferences for county officials hosted by the Michigan Association of Counties included vendors from Deterra, which sells a system to deactivate prescription leftover opioid prescriptions.

Michigan’s health department offers technical assistance for local jurisdictions, and has participated in a series of in-person and online listening sessions to assess local needs, and the Michigan Association of Counties provides an online resource library for local government officials working to figure out how best to spend settlement funds.

“Everyone wants that magic solution. But these dollars are not the opportunity to invest in a pilot program,” said Johns Hopkins’ Whaley. “Getting communities talking to agencies already working on the ground (does more good) than a fancy vending machine.”

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