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DeGette, congressional panel assess effectiveness of opioid treatment grants

Author: Tom Ramstack - July 20, 2018 - Updated: August 7, 2018

Lift the LabelA wall of 4,200 prescription bottles demonstrates the number of deaths in the United States due to opioids. (Photo by Marianne Goodland/Colorado Politics)

WASHINGTON — A government health care administrator advocated expanding access to opioid addiction treatment Thursday during a congressional hearing at a time when the drug’s health risks are becoming a campaign issue in Colorado.

“What we have to do is to work very hard to integrate substance abuse treatment, opioid addiction treatment, into primary care settings in addition to having specialty care available,” said Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

She testified during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health, which is reviewing the health care initiatives of the 21st Century Cures Act that Congress passed in 2016.

Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette is a member of the subcommittee. She was also a primary author of the act, which seeks to accelerate medical product development and train the experts who make them.

Part of the $500 million from the act also pays for substance abuse and mental health treatment in Colorado and elsewhere.

“We know that people find it very difficult to access (opioid addiction) care, and so we want to broaden the number of providers that are willing to engage in the care,” McCance-Katz told the congressional subcommittee.

DeGette, D-Denver, did not directly address opioid addiction but hinted that the 21st Century Cures Act could be modified.

“I’m not sure we yet have it right, but we’re certainly working in that direction,” DeGette said.

Her most recent legislative effort to stop opioid addiction was co-sponsorship of a bill in March that would route more phone calls from persons suffering from opioid addiction and overdoses to poison control centers nationwide. The bill is pending.

Opioid addiction has become an important issue in the campaign for Colorado’s next attorney general.

Democratic attorney general candidate Phil Weiser has said he wants to join lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for the opioids they make and distribute. The lawsuits accuse the companies of concealing the dangerously addictive tendencies of painkillers such as OxyContin.

The companies contend that the misuse of prescription drugs properly marked with warnings is not their fault.

Six Colorado counties and three cities already have joined the lawsuits. The state attorneys general of Tennessee, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia also have sued.

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has declined to join the lawsuits, partly because assessing the damages in Colorado would be speculative. Coffman is not running for re-election in the upcoming Nov. 6 election.

Republican attorney general candidate George Brauchler has not said he would sue.

The lawsuits are filed against companies such as Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., Allergan, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp.

Colorado health officials say more than 350 people died in the state from opioid overdoses last year.

The 21st Century Cures Act last year provided a $7.8 million grant to the Colorado Department of Human Services to fight opioid addiction. In a statement to Colorado Politics, a spokesperson said, “Through the grant, we have provided funding for all 22 of Colorado’s Opioid Treatment Programs to serve uninsured and indigent clients; provided more than 700 individuals with medication-assisted treatment; trained more than 300 primary care providers so they can prescribe medication-assisted treatment in their offices, increasing access in areas that are not near a substance use provider; distributed almost 8,000 naloxone kits to help prevent overdose deaths; and trained Colorado Crisis Services hotline staff to be better prepared to respond to opioid-related calls, among other activities.”

The Colorado Health Institute, a research foundation on health care policy, used part of the funding to help the Ute Mountain tribe develop a strategic plan to counter drug abuse.

“It is too soon to judge the effects of this funding,” Joe Hanel, Colorado Health Institute spokesman, said about the year-old program. “It takes years of patient work to start to solve big public health problems.”

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack