Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said Thursday he had awarded $50 million from the state's opioid settlement funds to create an Arkansas Children's Hospital research center dedicated to studying the impact of opioids on children.
"I've imposed upon myself a desire to at least have one eye looking for some long-term infrastructure investment that will continue to help Arkansans. ... Beyond a year, beyond the life of the money, beyond my life, what we're doing today will impact Arkansas, and ultimately the world, after we're all gone," Griffin said.
Griffin made the announcement alongside hospital officials at a news conference Thursday on the Arkansas Children's campus in Little Rock.
Arkansas Children's CEO Marcy Doderer said the Arkansas Children's Research Institute will also invest $20 million into the facility.
The $70 million National Center for Opioid Research & Clinical Effectiveness is expected to occupy 45,000 square feet and to break ground in late 2024 on the hospital campus.
The research center will be the first of its kind in the nation, Doderer said.
"We truly do still sit in epidemic proportions when it comes to the opioid crisis. Opioid deaths are now the leading cause of accidental death across our country, and they're leading the cause of poisoning death in children 5 and under," she said.
Doderer said that the high pediatric fatality rates in Arkansas are "tragic and preventable."
"At Arkansas Children's we see this in our clinics and our emergency departments and in the way we interface with families from across the state. ... That's our first job -- to take care of those kids that we catch in our clinics and in our hospitals every day," she said.
Griffin said that the efforts that have been made to target opioid abuse, like distribution of Narcan, an opioid reversal drug, are "ephemeral."
"We'll be able to say we did that and that we learned a lot and we're applying it. That's great, but then it's over. I said 'I don't want that. ... I'm gonna just tell you, I think we need brick and mortar,'" Griffin said referring to his initial phone call to Doderer.
The attorney general's office is required to spend the opioid settlement money on "opioid abatement," he said.
"I have money and I want to do something significant," he said.
He said the $50 million includes money that his predecessor, Leslie Rutledge, had transferred to the state's general revenue weeks before she left office.
Rutledge, who like Griffin is a Republican, was sworn in as lieutenant governor on Jan. 10, the same day Griffin was sworn in as attorney general.
Rutledge announced in December that her office would transfer $140 million in opioid settlement funds, most of which the state had not yet received, to the state's general revenue to allow legislators to decide how to spend it.
Griffin said in February that he had conducted a legal review of Rutledge's decision and determined transferring the money to state general revenue would be in improper.
At Griffin's request, the state Department of Finance and Administration returned to Griffin's office the $10 million in opioid settlement funds that Rutledge had turned over before leaving office.
"Those funds constitute a portion of my $50 million grant to Arkansas Children's," Griffin said Thursday.
In a news release following the announcement event, Arkansas Children's said pregnant women and newborns are "deeply impacted" by opioid use.
"Babies exposed to opioids before birth are more likely to experience abnormal neurodevelopment, have learning impairments and face behavioral health challenges. These children are also much more likely to struggle with substance abuse as they grow up," Arkansas Children's said in the release.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies show Arkansas has the second-highest dispensing rate for opioids in the nation, according to the release.
Dr. Rick Barr, executive vice president and chief clinical and academic officer at Arkansas Children's, said that the center will have three goals once it opens, with the first being to build the facility to house the "equipment and technology to support our teams in tackling this crisis directly."
"Our second aim is to lead pioneering research to improve detection and treatment of opioid exposure in children, including community engagement models for adolescent opioid use prevention," he said.
The center's third goal is to "conduct longitudinal studies to assess the impact of prenatal and neonatal opioid exposure on the developmental and behavioral outcomes of infants and children," Barr said.
Ly is a Report for America Corps member.