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Baltimore City Council to Hold Hearings on Drug Overdoses

Baltimore City Council members said Monday they would hold a series of hearings on the city government’s response to its overdose epidemic, following an examination by The New York Times and The Baltimore Banner.

The public safety and health committees announced they would meet at least four times on the topic in the coming months, starting in July.

“At the end of the day, we want to save lives,” Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the public safety committee, said in an interview last week. “If we’re going to pretend everything is OK, we’ll never make any changes, and I think that would be a mistake.”

The examination, published last month by The Times and The Banner, found that overdoses in Baltimore — driven by the introduction of fentanyl into the drug supply — were killing people at a rate never before seen in a major American city.

Baltimore’s death rate from 2018 to 2022 was nearly double that of any other large city, a statistic several top leaders, including Mayor Brandon Scott, had not known about until reporters told them. Nearly 6,000 people were killed in the past six years.

The city once had an aggressive overdose prevention strategy, but as officials became preoccupied with other crises, some of their efforts stalled, the examination found.

In the interview last week, Mr. Conway also said he would explore changing the city’s budget to put more money into overdose prevention, though he said it was not clear how feasible such changes would be.

In Baltimore, the mayor writes the city’s budget, but the City Council can vote to cut or increase funding for programs. Finance officials have warned there is limited flexibility within the $4.1 billion budget. Last year, the council’s changes affected less than 1 percent of the budget.

Overdoses were mentioned sparingly in Mr. Scott’s initial budget proposal, which included $500,000 to expand clinical services and buprenorphine treatment by the Health Department, “fully funding” the emergency medical service unit of the Fire Department and “maintaining the current level of service” for the Health Department’s clinical service team.

On Monday, however, the city announced a $45 million settlement with the pharmaceutical company Allergan, which was one of more than a dozen companies it had sued, accusing them of helping fuel the opioid addiction crisis. Maryland had previously settled with the companies, but city leaders had opted out of the state settlement to pursue their own case. Millions of dollars are earmarked in the city’s settlement agreement for specific programs that help people struggling with addiction.

The lawsuit against other companies is set for trial in September.

Conway said he would not allow public testimony at the hearing, in an effort “not to jeopardize” Baltimore’s ongoing litigation with other pharmaceutical companies.

“I’m looking for the city to explain simply where we are, not how we got here,” Mr. Conway said.

Councilwoman Danielle McCray, the chair of the health committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked last week about the potential for hearings, Mayor Scott said his administration “welcomes the oversight.”

Mayor Brandon ScottCredit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

In the three weeks since the Times/Banner examination was published, city officials have been repeatedly questioned during City Council committee meetings about their response to overdoses.

They have pointed to several steps they are taking, including the plan to create an opioid coordination office to manage the settlement money and an “opioid stat” database to track overdose deaths.

Dr. Ihuoma Emenuga, Baltimore’s health commissioner.Credit…Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner, for The New York Times

“The silver lining of the article, as uncomfortable as it was, was that it did give a lot of attention to the challenges we are facing in the city,” the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Ihuoma Emenuga, said on Thursday, adding that her department had seen more people reaching out in the wake of the reporting and looking for ways to support the city’s efforts. “We will see more resources, we will see more attention, and we will see the needle shift on this.”

Lillian Reed and Meredith Cohn contributed reporting.

Anna Harden

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