As an opioids scourge devastates tribes in Washington, lawmakers advance a bill to provide relief

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SEATTLE — A bill that would bring millions of dollars to tribes in Washington state to address the opioid crisis received unanimous support in the House on Friday, opening the door for state funding to address a scourge that some say is claiming a generation.

“This bill invests in Indian country. It invests in the Native Americans of Washington state. It invests in the preservation of generations of Native Americans whose land we stand on today,” Democratic Rep. Debra Lekanoff, who is Tlingit and Aleut, said during the vote.

The proposed measure is expected to provide nearly $8 million each year for the 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington, funds drawn in part from a roughly half-billion-dollar settlement between the state and major opioid distributors.

The approach comes as Native Americans and Alaska Natives in Washington die of opioid overdoses at five times the state average, according to 2021-2022 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that includes provisional numbers. The rate in Washington is one of the highest in the U.S. and more than three times the rate nationwide — but many of the Indigenous nations in the state lack the funding or medical resources to fully address it.

The state Senate previously unanimously approved the bill, but it will need to go back to the body for concurrence before going on to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. Jaime Smith, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said in an email that Inslee “has been very supportive of this effort and appreciates the work of legislators to bolster our state’s opioid response on multiple fronts, including support for Tribes.”

But some tribes say the proposed funding, while appreciated, would barely scratch the surface in the face of such a deadly crisis.

Opioid overdose deaths for Native Americans and Alaska Natives have increased dramatically during the past few years in Washington, with at least 100 in 2022 — 75 more than in 2019, according to the most recent numbers available from the Washington State Department of Health.

Republican state Sen. John Braun, the bill’s prime sponsor, has said this is just a first step.

“This is just going to get us started, and make sure we’re not sitting on our hands, waiting for the problem to solve itself,” he said.

The bill would earmark funds deposited into an opioid settlement account, which includes money from the state’s $518 million settlement in 2022 with the nation’s three largest opioid distributors, for tribes battling addiction. Tribes are expected to receive $7.75 million or 20% of the funds deposited into the account the previous fiscal year — whichever is greater — annually.

The money provided through the legislation does not come with a specific end date. But starting in 2031, there would no longer be a minimum required dollar amount, according to an amendment approved Friday. The state would provide 20% of the money deposited in an opioid settlement account during the prior fiscal year. And if the average amount deposited into that account gets too low, no funding would be required to go to the tribes.

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