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AG Healey announces $1.5 million grant program to expand opioid treatment access for people of color

Attorney General Maura Healey spoke outside the State House in July.
Attorney General Maura Healey spoke outside the State House in July.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on Thursday morning announced a new grant program intended to provide more equitable care for Black, Latino, and other people of color struggling with opioid use.

The $1.5 million program, called Promoting Cultural Humility in Opioid Use Disorder Treatment Grant, will “support more inclusive recovery programs and behavioral health services for communities of color,” Healey said in an interview Wednesday.

Grants of up to $100,000 over two years will be available to nonprofit groups, municipalities, and other agencies looking to build or expand opioid treatment programs that are culturally sensitive, Healey’s office said.

Various approaches to counseling and treating substance use are eligible, and priority will go to “innovative solutions and applications from treatment programs that demonstrate an understanding of providers' biases and the barriers to care for diverse patients,” the AG’s office said.

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Applications are due Oct. 23.

In statements released by Healey’s office, public officials and advocates for people of color lauded the grant program’s goal to create equity in the state’s substance abuse treatment system.

“We’ve seen our loved ones and family members suffer higher incarceration and mortality rates with little to no treatment or rehabilitation alternatives available,” said Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive of the NAACP. “In an effort to reimagine how we approach substance abuse for the betterment of our nation, this new grant program will promote equity among treatment options and realize the complexity of these issues within our communities.”

State Representative Jon Santiago, a Boston Democrat and emergency room doctor, praised the program as “a bold step in the right direction.”

“COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated health inequities in communities of color," Santiago said. "Now more than ever, we must double down on our commitment to address health inequity wherever it exists — including an opioid epidemic that continues to harm the Commonwealth.”

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US Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Dorchester Democrat, said in a statement that she was “grateful to Attorney General Healey for her continued leadership in the fight to end our opioid crisis."

“For too long, our response to substance use has criminalized people of color, rather than providing them the care they need,” Pressley said. “We must ensure Black, brown, and Indigenous people struggling with opioid use have access to culturally responsive healthcare and support they need to overcome this disease and thrive in recovery.”

Healey said too many people have seen the opioid crisis “as something that was impacting primarily white suburban and rural communities — that’s simply not true.” And the coronavirus pandemic has helped expose “the disparities that Black and brown residents endure, especially in our health care system,” she said.

“These disparities are rooted, of course, in decades of systemic racism,” Healey said.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported an increase in opioid-related overdose deaths among Black and Hispanic residents from 2018 to 2019, a period when those deaths decreased for white residents and other groups, she said.

Healey also pointed to a recent report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that shows that Black and Latino people experience “deep-seated inequities in health care,” including less access to behavioral health and substance-use treatment services and to care that is culturally responsive.

“To me, it’s about recognizing those disparities that exist for Black and brown communities when it comes to health care, including behavioral health and substance-use treatment, and then working to eliminate those barriers,” Healey said.

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The program will be funded out of an $11 million settlement the attorney general’s office reached in June with Injured Workers Pharmacy, an Andover mail-order pharmacy that serves thousands of workers' compensation patients nationwide. Prosecutors alleged the company failed to implement safeguards against illegal and dangerous dispensing of drugs, including opioids and fentanyl.

The attorney general said the grant program is one of several initiatives her office is launching in an effort to chip away at aspects of structural racism in American society.

“We are very intentionally and purposefully trying to address issues of racial equity and racial injustice,” she said.

She added later, “What I hope it signals is not only my office’s commitment to this, but a greater attention that needs to be paid to ensuring that we are doing everything we can to eliminate once and for all the barriers, the obstacles that perpetuate systemic racism. … Where we see a place to act, we’re going to act.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.