Lawmakers landed some blows in Colorado’s fight against opioid addiction

Author: Joey Bunch - May 22, 2017 - Updated: June 8, 2017

The legislative pushback on opioid abuse in Colorado got lost in the shuffle of winners and losers at the end of the session. Lawmakers and the Colorado Department of Human Services have a lot to show for the past few months.

Their work is warranted. The abuse of hard drugs is being called crisis in the state, and overdose deaths have doubled since 2000.

Colorado has the second-highest rate of prescription drugs abuse in the country, behind Oregon.

This past session, the legislature passed Senate Bill 74 to create a pilot program in Pueblo and Routt counties, where heroin deaths have soared.

Lawmakers also approved Senate Bill 193 to use $1 million of marijuana tax money for a substance abuse research center at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

House Bill 1351 calls on the Department of Human Serves to study options under Medicaid for inpatient and residential recovery programs. Currently the state offers only four days of emergency treatment.

Rep. Brittany Pettersen’s name and influence have been common on the legislation addressing substance abuse the past two sessions.

“Our state and nation are facing a health crisis and it is imperative we take action to support people who are suffering from this disease,” said the Lakewood Democrat who has made her mother’s fight with addiction part of her congressional campaign.

“For far too long, these people have been disregarded because of the stigma associated with addiction. But after years of overprescribing, a large portion of the population is addicted to pain pills. Everyone knows someone who is affected, and inaction is not an option.”

At Pettersen’s request, lawmakers created a committee to study substance abuse disorders and suggest solutions for next year’s session.

The committee will study data about the scope of the issue, as well as existing practices. Pettersen said lawmakers would “study prevention, intervention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery support strategies for opioid and other substance use disorders in Colorado.”

Programs for Pueblo and Routt

Sen. Leroy Garcia and Rep. Daneya Esgar, both Democrats from Pueblo, pushed for the pilot program for Pueblo and Routt counties.

In a newsletter to constituents, Garcia said Pueblo makes up 6 percent of Colorado’s population, but 18.1 percent of heroin abuse cases in 2014.

Senate Bill 74 will help increase access to addiction treatment, including behavioral therapy and medication, the local lawmakers said.

“This represents a bold and innovative effort to directly tackle some of the very serious challenges of opioid addiction, specifically in southeastern Colorado,” said Esgar.

Said Garcia: “There are many stories I have heard about families and their loved ones that struggle with opioid addiction. In our community of Pueblo, this epidemic has particularly harmed our young people, and are tearing homes apart, but there just aren’t enough treatment options available. I know this bill is critical not just for Pueblo and Routt counties, but for all of Colorado, to expand access to treatment so we can take a modest, yet very important step in combating the opioid epidemic.”

Federal aid

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican from Cortez, wrote in his column this month that drug addition epidemic in Colorado. He simultaneously announced Colorado will receive a $7.8 million federal grant for opioid prevention, treatment, and recovery services.

“I know that Colorado’s health care providers, law enforcement officers, educators, and community support groups are committed to saving lives and bringing an end to prescription drug and heroin abuse, and this grant will be extremely helpful for our state,” Tipton wrote.

The  Colorado Department of Human Services will use federal money on medication-assisted therapy, family therapy, the overdose medication Naloxone, emergency room studies, crisis services, training for doctors and nurses, residential treatment and training and equipping law enforcement.

“The Office of Behavioral Health continues to be concerned about the devastating effects of misuse of prescription pain medication and heroin addiction on individuals and our communities,” Nancy VanDeMark, the office’s director, said in a statement. “This funding will enable communities to expand the treatment and support they provide to individuals addicted to opioids.”

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.