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Opioid abuse could be a unifying message on the campaign trail in rural Colorado

Author: Peter Marcus - July 10, 2017 - Updated: July 10, 2017

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U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and a Democratic challenger, state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, are both highlighting the issue of opioid abuse in the 3rd Congressional District.
(DianeforColorado.com/AP)

In rural Colorado Republicans and Democrats could find common ground on the campaign trail over opioid abuse, which has plagued parts of the state.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and a Democratic challenger, state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, are both highlighting the issue in the 3rd Congressional District.

Tipton on Friday announced that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is providing $195 million in new federal funding for health centers to increase access to mental health and substance abuse services.

Health centers can apply for the grants to help fight opioid abuse and provide services to individuals and families impacted by mental illness. Tipton’s office is assisting health centers and groups interested in applying for the grants.

“The number one thing I hear in communities that have been impacted by the opioid epidemic is that they need more resources to increase access to both substance abuse treatment and mental health services,” Tipton said. “Colorado’s health care providers are some of the most dedicated in the country, and additional resources will further support their efforts to fight opioid abuse and address mental illness in our communities.”

Tipton is facing a challenge from Mitsch Bush, who recently launched her campaign in the sprawling southern and western Colorado district.

The district swings between Republicans and Democrats, though it currently favors a Republican candidate. Tipton, in his fourth term, fought off a spirited challenge last year by former state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Gunnison County, defeating Scwartz by nearly 15 points.

More than a third of the district is comprised of unaffiliated voters, which means tens of thousands of votes are potentially up in the air. Fighting opioid abuse is a bipartisan subject that could provide similar messaging from Republicans and Democrats on the campaign trail.

Mitsch Bush said the $195 million in nationwide funding is barely a start and that members of Congress should be fighting harder on the issue.

“That’s spitting in the ocean. It’s better than zero, but $195 million, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Mitsch Bush said.

The grants are expected to be awarded in September. The Health Center Program funds providers in underserved areas, about 1,400 community health centers providing care to more than 24 million people. There are 20 Community Health Centers in Colorado.

The new funding could help heath centers add employees and invest in technology to help expand access to care for mental health and substance abuse services.

In May, HHS announced over $70 million to help communities and health care providers prevent opioid overdose deaths and provide treatment for opioid use disorder, of which $28 million will be dedicated for medication-assisted treatment.

A separate recent grant announced by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy made $3 million available to expand opioid-related health care services in rural communities.

Opioid abuse could also be one of the few things that unites some Republicans and Democrats as negotiations over the U.S. Senate’s health care bill continue. The controversial measure would provide states with $2 billion to address opioids in 2018. But some Republicans are joining with Democrats to call for the fund to go up to $45 billion over the next decade.

In Colorado, overdose deaths from prescription opioids dropped between 2015 and 2016, but the state continues to grapple with an increase in heroin overdoses. And Colorado remains a leader in prescription drug abuse. Some studies have placed Colorado second in the nation for prescription opioid abuse.

With the annual cost of the nationwide opioid epidemic estimated at more than $78 billion, Mitsch Bush says Congress should act with grater urgency.

“In order to tackle opioid abuse problems, opioid addiction problems, we need to tackle the larger issue as well,” Mitsch Bush said. “Until it becomes recognized as the way we do business, to have mental health and substance abuse out of parity with physical heath, we’re going to have these bits of money like this provided here and there, but we’re not going to have a sustainable source of funding.”

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus is senior statehouse reporter for Colorado Politics. He covers the legislature and previously covered politics, the governor’s office, the legislature and Congress for The Durango Herald. He joined The Herald in 2014 from The Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the nation’s top state-based political and legislative reporters.


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