Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirJuly 5, 20174min467 and other news media have reported extensively on efforts by the 2017 legislature to tackle the rampant abuse of opioids across Colorado; notably, a pilot program authored by two Democratic state lawmakers from Pueblo was OK’d by their peers and signed into law by the governor. Senate Bill 74, sponsored by Sen. Leroy Garcia and Rep. Daneya Esgar, will use marijuana tax revenue to train practitioners and expand treatment for opioid addiction in Pueblo and Routt counties, two places hit hard by the abuse of the drugs.

Of course, that effort just scratches the surface. It’s tempting whenever the legislature acts on a crisis to declare it solved, but we all know better, and an overview by Pulp Newsmagazine of the ongoing fight against rampant opioid abuse in Pueblo reminds us of the scale of the problem. Pulp’s Kara Mason writes:

The evolution of opioid addiction in Colorado, particularly in Southern Colorado, has been aggressive to say the least.

In April, a multi-agency report under the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention showcased a grave picture of the problem across the state: heroin-related deaths doubled from 2011 to 2015, heroin seizures by Colorado law enforcement increased 2,035 percent during the same time period and the number of people who were in treatment for heroin addiction increased 128 percent.

And one takeaway from Mason’s reporting is that delving deeper into the opioid issue involves more than just legislation; for one thing, it requires concerted action by the communities most affected, like Pueblo:

In each 2015 and 2016, Pueblo County saw 12 overdoses related to opioid use — the highest death count in the state, three times the state rate. And according to Dr. Michael Nerenberg, who runs the mobile needle exchange program in Pueblo, the problem isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse.

At a February Pueblo City Council work session Nerenberg said over the course of a year — June 2015 to June 2016 — the exchange had a reported 3,020 visits, which comes out to just over 250 visits per month. The needle exchange saw 420 total new clients and distributed nearly 200,000 needles. 118,000 were collected by the volunteers, which Nerenberg said is a conservative estimate.

How have city government and other agencies responded? What more could they do? And what role can the federal government play? Read Mason’s story for insights into those and many other questions swirling around Colorado’s opioid crisis. Pueblo is as good a place as any to look for answers; the Steel City is on the frontline of the battle.


Joey BunchJoey BunchMay 22, 20176min653

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.”


Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirMay 9, 20174min359

For an alternative take on the General Assembly — one that’s as authentically Colorado as metro Denver’s, yet entirely different — look no further than Pueblo-based Pulp Newsmagazine’s debrief with Pueblo Democratic state Sen. Leroy Garcia.

Garcia, who is assistant Democratic leader in the GOP-run upper chamber, sat recently with Pulp News Editor Kara Mason and reviewed legislative business from a Pueblo-centric perspective as the 2017 session nears its end. His remarks offer a glimpse into the distinct political and economic priorities of the onetime industrial center. Some highlights:

Biggest win for southern Colorado in the legislature this year?

…greater transparency for electric bills. The lobbying core from investor-owned utilities really fought hard to amend it and water it down and what was so great about the process is were able to fight that off …

The other is the heroin legislation that will create a pilot program here in Pueblo County (to credential certain health workers to treat addiction related to opiates).

The urban-rural divide?

There are rural communities that are disintegrating and find themselves crippled by no economic opportunities, no funding, no diversified industries. Pueblo has been lucky and we’ve weathered it well. When you look to the number of legislators we have compared to, say, Aurora, we’ve done fairly well.

Our funding for the Colorado State Fair, for the Colorado Lottery, CSU-Pueblo, PCC. Funding for capital infrastructure as well as higher education has done very well. And we have strong advocates. Look at Rep. Daneya Esgar, who’s chair of the capital development committee. I serve on appropriations and the assistant minority leader. We have legislators  —  even if only a few  —  that are in key positions.

The impact on Pueblo of legislative efforts to create jobs?

Pueblo has a great opportunity for health care. It’s a regional hub for healthcare. And look at what the payout is for those investments — and not just nurses — but even in something like the psychiatric technician realm, or in other areas.

Look at (wind-turbine manufacturer) Vestas — it’s proving to be unique. Some of those employers say we can’t attract and retain people fast enough. I think that’s a local challenge we have to address inside.

Read the full interview; here’s the link again.

Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirFebruary 24, 20173min324

Ratepayers steamed at their local public utilities likely will cheer an effort that advanced at the Capitol Thursday requiring greater accountability on monthly power bills.

Senate Bill 105, which easily passed the state Senate 26-9 with bipartisan backing, requires investor-owned, state-regulated public utilities like Xcel Energy serving the Denver area and Black Hills Energy in Pueblo to provide their customers with “comprehensive billing statements.” Utility bills would have to meet a range of standards set out in the proposal, including a line-item representation of all monthly charges and credits; a breakdown of controversial tiered rates, and the rate and usage for the current month and each of the previous 12 months.

Whether the proposal winds up being more substance or sop for consumers — we’re unsure at the moment how many power bills around the state may already conform to some of the bill’s requirements — the measure’s author, Sen. Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, clearly was hoping to address ratepayer discontent in his hometown. There, power rates are by many accounts among the highest in Colorado, and the community has been the scene of ratepayer outrage more than once in recent years in the face of successive rate hikes.

Garcia’s legislation doesn’t directly tackle the utility rates themselves — those are governed by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission — but it does at least seek to provide a dose of accountability ratepayers may feel is missing.

The legislation, which now goes to the House, follows the state Senate’s confirmation earlier this month of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s two picks — Jeff Ackermann and Wendy Moser — to fill two openings on the three-member Public Utilities Commission. Both nominations had been given a grilling earlier in committee, and Garcia was among a handful of senators who opposed both to the end. He told the Denver Business Journal of his disappointment at their approval:

“I believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that the PUC is acting in the best interests of the rate payers…In southern Colorado we are paying some of the highest electric rates in the state, and they have allowed Black Hills Energy to pass these increases to customers.”

Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirFebruary 9, 20172min325

A state Senate committee gave all thumbs up Wednesday to a proposal to combat abuse of opioids like heroin, oxycodone and assorted other drugs, especially among youth.

Senate Bill 74 — introduced in the upper chamber by first-term Sen. Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat — would create a two-year pilot program under the auspices of the University of Colorado’s College of Nursing to expand access to “life-saving medication-assisted treatment.” The treatment involves both medication and behavioral therapy that the sponsor says have been proven to be clinically effective to reduce the need for inpatient detoxification services.

Garcia, quoted in a press statement from the Senate Democratic communications HQ, said:

“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 combatting the opioid epidemic.”

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee gave the legislation its unanimous, and thus, bipartisan endorsement. It now will get in line for funding in the Appropriations Committee.


Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirJanuary 25, 20172min328

Pueblo state Sen. Leroy Garcia says his southern Colorado community is among those besieged by abuse of opioids like heroin, oxycodone and assorted other drugs. It’s especially problematic among young people.

So, the first-term Democrat is proposing a regional pilot program that, according to a press release his office distributed Tuesday, would “provide grants to medical professionals to increase access to life-saving treatment and care for patients battling opioid addiction in Pueblo and Routt counties.”

Garcia’s Senate Bill 74 would create a two-year pilot program under the auspices of the University of Colorado’s College of Nursing to expand access to “life-saving medication-assisted treatment.” The treatment involves both medication and behavioral therapy and, Garcia says, has been proven to be clinically effective to reduce the need for inpatient detoxification services.

“The epidemic of opioid addiction is hurting young people, and tearing apart communities,” Garcia says in the news release. “Approximately 6 percent of the state’s population lives in Southern Colorado. Yet in 2014, our community represented 18.1 percent of those admitted for heroin addiction. By increasing access to life-saving treatment and care through this pilot program, we can take a small, yet important step towards addressing an epidemic that claimed more Colorado lives than homicide did in 2015.”

If it becomes law, the program would receive $1 million in initial funding from the marijuana tax cash fund, while also seeking additional federal grants. The bill is scheduled to debut Feb. 8 in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.


Kara MasonKara MasonFebruary 10, 20164min340
Frances Koncilja, candidate for the state’s Public Utilities Commission, received a strong thumbs-up from the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee Monday. Koncilja, a Denver-area attorney with ties to Pueblo, was appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper and won confirmation from six of the seven members of the Business Committee. Both chambers of the Legislature will […]

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