Rakowsky and Mamet: City leaders prepared to act on opioid abuse

Authors: Ron Rakowsky, Sam Mamet - March 23, 2016 - Updated: March 23, 2016


By Ron Rakowsky and Sam Mamet

Greenwood Village Mayor Ron Rakowsky and Colorado Municipal League Executive Director Sam Mamet
Greenwood Village Mayor Ron Rakowsky and Colorado Municipal League Executive Director Sam Mamet

The media has been replete with the saddest of stories about a serious health issue facing all of our communities — prescription drug abuse.

Here are some facts:

  • Each day, 44 people die as a result of an opioid overdose, far exceeding car-crash deaths.
  • According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, the rate of opioid deaths has increased by 200 percent.
  • A significant problem results from prescription painkillers. A March 16 New York Times article focused on the pressures facing physicians, especially in rural areas. “Do no harm” is in the medical crosshairs more and more. As state-administered prescription drug monitoring programs clamp down on the practice of over-prescribing, some patients turn to cheaper options, including heroin.
  • Overdose deaths are up in almost every one of Colorado’s 64 counties. According to the widely respected Colorado Health Institute, our state’s drug death rate tops the U.S. average and has climbed 68 percent between 2002 and 2014.
  • The National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties recently formed a task force to look at how county and municipal governments can work together across the country on opioid abuse. NACO President Sallie Clark, an El Paso County commissioner, is a major player in this initiative.

Two recent news articles deserve mention.

In the March 7 Cortez Journal there was an excellent story about this issue and the challenges facing Montezuma County in the Four Corners area and the related pressures on local law enforcement.

A Feb. 11 story in The Denver Post focused on overdose deaths in rural areas of the state, especially in Southern Colorado, where eight counties reached the highest levels that the CDC statistically measures — 20 or more deaths per 100,000. And it isn’t just a rural problem — Denver and Adams County peaked at the same number.

We are heartened with the leadership efforts already crafted by both state lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper to tackle this problem.

A statewide group called the Colorado Consortium For Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention has been meeting through several task forces for some time to address the many facets of this issue. Dr. Robert Valuck of the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy has been capably leading that effort. Dr. Larry Wolk, head of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has been overseeing the governor’s work. We appreciate what they are doing.

What can city and county leaders do? First, we can make sure that every first responder in this state has an adequate supply of Naloxone, which has proven to be a key antidote for drug overdoses. An increasing number of police and fire response agencies are acquiring the drug, but we need to extend the reach statewide. We will be working on ways to get Naloxone distributed more comprehensively.

Second, we join with Gov. Hickenlooper and state legislators to increase the amount of community-wide education, which needs to occur to stop this scourge. State and local government leaders need to talk openly and honestly about it and acknowledge this as a problem that plagues us all.

Third, we need to work towards the goal of identifying permanent, ongoing safe disposal sites (“drop boxes”) for unused or outdated prescription drugs to be available in every county, city and town in this state. Municipal and county officials can lead the way on this.

Fourth, we need to make sure that health centers receive the support they need from local leaders in our communities. We were pleased to see recently that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services just awarded nearly $2 million to five such facilities in the state to improve and expand the delivery of substance abuse services.

Fifth, we call upon Colorado’s U.S. House delegation to pass legislation similar to what the Senate just adopted with only one “no” vote to put forward some additional national solutions. This is not a partisan issue; it is simply good public policy.

Sixth, this is not just an issue for law enforcement and emergency medical responders to deal with. While public safety agencies at the federal, state and local level should continue their focus on the suppliers of opiates and heroin, including prescription mills, they cannot address this alone. It will take a comprehensive approach in each community involving medical professionals, hospitals, social service agencies, mental health providers, pharmacies, clergy, school district officials and many more. These efforts should be supported by local government officials.

Finally, as community leaders we need to embrace those families who have been so deeply and tragically affected by prescription drug abuse and let them know that we care about them, and we share their pain. Let us involve them in our efforts.

The greatest challenges facing this nation are always solved by the collective actions of the states and local governments working together. We will win this battle.

Greenwood Village Mayor Ron Rakowsky chairs the Denver Metro Mayors Caucus Opioid Task Force and Sam Mamet is executive director of the Colorado Municipal League.

Ron Rakowsky

Ron Rakowsky

Ron Rakowsky is the Greenwood Village Mayor, first appointed to the Greenwood Village City Council in January 2011.

Sam Mamet

Sam Mamet

Sam Mamet is executive director of the Colorado Municipal League.