by Shannon Tyler, Colorado Newsline

A Colorado legislative committee started looking into next steps for the state to combat the opioid crisis in a hearing Thursday. 

It was the first time in four years the Opioid and Other Substance Use Study Committee had convened. The interim committee was formed in 2017 and last convened in 2019. Over that time 14 bills and 86 policies came out of the committee. 

Committee members heard presentations from state departments and opioid use researchers on the current state of Colorado’s opioid and substance use epidemic to start their work drafting bills to address the issue. The committee is led by Democratic Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, the chair, and Democratic Sen. Kevin Priola, the vice chair.

About half of all overdose deaths are attributed to fentanyl, which increased severely since 2013, according to Robert Valuck, the executive director of the University of Colorado Anschutz’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention. 

The current opioid crisis is much different than in years past, he said. Previously, the issue was prescription medication overdoses. Fentanyl is not prescribed but found in almost every drug market, according to Valuck.

He noted that people are still overdosing on prescription drugs. Although the number of overdoses has tapered, the fentanyl crisis is an added layer to an already existing problem. 

Many presenters at the meeting focused on how access to harm reduction and prevention is difficult for some residents, such as in rural areas and for communities of color. 

Jose Esquibel, director of CU Anschutz’s Colorado Consortium, discussed Colorado’s initiatives to reach people in rural areas, including mobile efforts and telehealth options. 

State Sen. Rod Pelton, a Cheyenne Wells Republican, said the state needs to invest in more than just telehealth for rural communities. He said sometimes it’s necessary to meet face-to-face with healthcare providers. 

“It’s a great tool, but I don’t want it to become the norm out in rural areas,” Pelton said. 

According to the center’s data, the counties with the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths from prescription drugs or heroin in 2021 were Las Animas, Moffat and Alamosa counties. The southeastern part of the state had the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths involving fentanyl in 2021. 

Esquibel said access to treatment practices continues to be a challenge for many. According to the center’s data, the Eastern Plains and northwest Colorado have much fewer locations to treat opioid use disorders than the state average. The Front Range has a high concentration of them. 

Communities of color also have less access to nearby treatment locations. Esquibel displayed a map of the Denver metro area color-coded to show the percentage of Black residents in relation to dots representing opioid treatment care. In areas in Denver where there is a higher percentage of Black residents, there are far fewer treatment centers. 

“When I look at this, this shows an injustice. There’s something not right that in those communities there’s not easy access to opioid use disorder treatment,” Esquibel said. 

Along with lack of access to treatment centers, there are disparities in the average rate of opioid deaths for Black and Native American beneficiaries, who have much higher rates than their white counterparts. 

Stigma a deterrent

Several presenters spoke on the state’s progress. According to Esquibel, Colorado has been recognized for its meaningful responses to substance abuse. But the state needs better outreach for communities of color, he said.

Cristen Bates, deputy Medicaid director with the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, said that while there has been progress in the opioid crisis response, that progress has disproportionately benefited white residents. 

“Now we’re seeing Black, Indigenous and people of color with disproportionate increases in overdoses over time,” Bates said. 

Other areas of improvement the state should consider are workforce development and stigma prevention, according to Bates. 

Bates said stigma around opioid use treatment is “actively stopping people from getting help.” 

The state attorney general’s deputy director of opioid response, Jamie Feld, presented information on legal settlement funds the state received from several prescription drug manufacturing companies. Colorado will receive more than $700 million over 18 years with much of the funds allocated to specified regions and local municipalities. 

According to Feld, 20% of the funds will go to local governments directly and are allocated to 19 established regions. The remaining 10% will go to statewide infrastructure and 10% directly to the state. Funds for Tribal communities will come out of the state share, according to Feld. She said the state is in the process of finalizing a contract for about $2 million of the funds. 

With 312 local governments agreeing to the program, Colorado was one of the first states in the nation to get such a level of agreement, according to Feld. She said $33 million has already been released. 

More meetings planned

Two county commissioners working with the settlement funds in their regions spoke to the committee members about their work. Prowers County Commissioner Wendy Buxton-Andrade representing Region 19, which covers southeastern Colorado,  said the region has received a little over $2.7 million, which has been used in part to educate the community on the opioid crisis.

“We found that many in our communities had different perceptions about what harm reduction actually is,” Buxton-Andrade said. 

She said in the region local officials are working on a website with resources and a local marketing campaign that includes QR codes and business cards for law enforcement to distribute information to the public. 

The committee will meet six times during the interim session, diving deeper into specific aspects of the opioid crisis to draft legislation addressing overdose deaths in the state before the regular legislative session, which starts in January.

This article first appeared in Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence.