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HHS secretary touts opioid program during Colorado Springs visit

Author: Joey Bunch - August 2, 2017 - Updated: August 2, 2017

Opioid HHS programHealth and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, center, talks with Todd Jones, at left, and Scott Strode, founders of Phoenix Multisport, Monday, when he visited the gym that offers recovering addicts a free place to workout. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)

President Donald Trump’s top health official on Tuesday night hailed a Colorado-based nonprofit as an example of how to turn the tide on the nation’s raging opioid epidemic.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price toured Phoenix Multisport’s Colorado Springs gym, praising its ability to help participants feel like “family” while providing a safe space to remain sober.

“It kind of punctuates what we’ve seen in other communities, and that is that local solutions work best,” Price said.

The program, which began in Boulder in 2007 and expanded to Colorado Springs a few years later, bills itself as a long-term recovery program for people who want to quit drugs or alcohol. It’s since grown to nine locations across the nation, including Denver and Boston.

Price’s visit came on the heels of a White House commission’s report urging Trump to “declare a national emergency” on the epidemic as a means to force Congress into approving more money to combat the problem.

In Colorado, fatal narcotic painkiller overdoses have nearly tripled since 2001, claiming 300 lives in 2016, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The visit also came as congressional Republicans and the White House regroup after their failed bid to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The debate saw many patient advocates spar with Price over how best to combat the epidemic.

Price offered no clues on the administration’s plans for handling former President Barack Obama’s health law. But he defended his push to end Medicaid’s expansion, which under the Affordable Care Act afforded substance abuse treatment benefits to millions of Americans. Addiction specialists have urged him not to end that coverage.

“What we’re trying to do is make certain that every single American has access to a health coverage policy that works for them,” Price said.

The effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act never came up as Price chatted Tuesday with the organization’s leaders.

Rather, a dozen Phoenix regulars heaved medicine balls and did countless burpees as Price toured the spacious gym off Colorado Avenue, east of Interstate 25.

Activities are held every day, including workouts, mountain bike rides, rock climbing trips and yoga classes. The goal: provide a healthy outlet to battle their addictions, while building a network of fellow athletes to help when the cravings hit.

Each class instructor also is recovering from drug addiction, adding an extra layer of support.

James Eads, 40, who has participated in the group for four years while recovering from alcohol and methamphetamine addiction, gushed about it to Price.

“It gave me passion,” Eads said. “It gave me people to surround myself with.”

Addiction experts say combating opioid addiction takes a constellation of treatment options — led by medications capable of taking the bite out of drug cravings and bolstered by therapy and long-term support networks.

The health debate focused on the former, with access to Medicaid and medications such as methadone and buprenorphine taking center stage.

Phoenix Multisport involves the latter, providing aid that can last years, said Scott Strode, the organization’s national director.

The group has served about 22,000 people nationwide, including thousands in Colorado Springs.

Each class is free to anyone sober for at least 48 hours, be it from alcohol, opioids or any other type of drug.

“There are not many long-term recovery support programs out there, and Phoenix is stepping into that breach to try to fill that gap,” Strode said.

Sabrah Jean Collar, 36, said the program has helped her “beyond anything I could put into words.”

She spent three years getting high on fentanyl and much longer abusing alcohol. But when she tried to quit, no inpatient rehab program would accept her health insurance.

That’s when a friend recommended Phoenix, where she works out, rock climbs and often goes camping and hiking.

She hailed the program for its ability to combat the stigma of addiction.

“You have something in common binding us together,” Collar said. “Part of the disease (of addiction) is to isolate you. And this connects you to other people.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.

One comment

  • marcia tewell

    August 2, 2017 at 11:46 am

    What a great idea as we all know what comes from exercise and getting out in our beautiful state. The success is guaranteed just given the mission!

    What I find very odd is that the Secretary mentioned that he likes local ‘solutions’ such as the Phoenix project. This project is in Boston among other lucky places and should spread nationally as the epidemic is the epidemic whether you live in NH or Denver. What an innane comment for him to make when there are so many other potential reactions. Can anyone tell me why this should not be a national project rather than one limited to a town that has the innovation and/or resources to develop it?

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