The Baltimore City Council will hold a hearing to examine the city’s response to its unprecedented overdose epidemic in the wake of findings published in recent weeks in a joint investigation by The Baltimore Banner and The New York Times.

Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the public safety and government operations committee, plans to introduce legislation on Monday to convene a hearing in late June, though he noted in an interview that he thinks the council will need more than one meeting to cover the issue.

The Banner and The Times recently published a yearlong investigation detailing overdose deaths in Baltimore. Nearly 6,000 people have died from overdoses in the last 6 years, the worst drug crisis ever seen in a major American city.

Baltimore’s death rate from 2018 to 2022 was nearly double that of any large city, a statistic unknown by several top leaders, including Mayor Brandon Scott, until reporters informed them. Scott has been critical of the reporting, saying that The Times and The Banner’s reporting on the city’s response amounted to “misguided victim blaming.”

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Others have taken a different approach.

“Regardless of what they may perceive as the intentions of the article or the angle, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, we want to save lives,” said Conway. “If we’re going to pretend everything is OK, we’ll never make any changes, and I think that would be a mistake.”

The epidemic is taking a disproportionate toll on older Black men in the city. One generation of Black men, those born between 1951 and 1970, have fatally overdosed at tremendous rates for decades. Homes for seniors now make up a disproportionate number of the top locations for overdoses.

Conway said he would like to hold joint hearings with Councilwoman Danielle McCray, chair of the health, environment and technology committee, though she has not said publicly if she will join Conway in hosting the hearings.

McCray, who has been a vocal advocate for the city to do more to address its opioids epidemic, said in an email Thursday that she could not confirm any details about specific plans to call for hearings.

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Conway also expressed interest in altering Scott’s proposed budget to put more money into overdose prevention, though he’s said he’s not clear yet how feasible such changes will be.

As mayor, Scott puts forth a budget proposal each spring for the City Council to review and sign into law. A majority of members can vote to cut or increase funding for different policies, but finance officials have warned there is limited flexibility within the $4.1 billion budget. Last year, the council’s changes affected less than 1% of the budget.

Health Department officials went before the council Thursday as part of a multiweek series of budget hearings. Due to changes in the way Baltimore budgets state grants, city funding for the Health Department has dropped this year, accounting for about $208 million of Scott’s spending plan.

Much of the council’s scrutiny Thursday focused on the consequences of funding challenges for substance abuse prevention at the agency. At various points in the hearing, Jennifer Martin, deputy commissioner for population health at BCHD, lamented a lack of funds to expand buprenorphine treatments and a mobile health van that treats substance use, as well as a steep drop in state support for HIV treatment for the uninsured, the last of which Martin said will mean reductions in clinician services.

Scott’s administration has pointed in the last two weeks to steps they are taking to prioritize the city’s overdose response, including through an office dedicated to opioids and an “opioid stat” database to track overdose deaths.

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“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,” said city Health Commissioner Dr. Ihuoma Emenuga, who added her department has seen more people reach out in the wake of the reporting 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.”

Emenuga said her department is working with other levels of government to ensure it has the right procedures in place to take advantage of resources when they become available.

Overdoses are mentioned only sparingly in Scott’s proposed budget. It notes a $500,000 investment to expand clinical services and buprenorphine treatment by the Health Department, a chart showing Baltimore’s increase in “opioid-related” deaths, proposals for “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.