Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, wants to expand a network of centers dedicated to treating opioid addiction in southern Colorado as the state’s overdose deaths have risen to an all-time high. But the expansion could stop short of Southwest Colorado, where Montezuma County now has one of the highest overdose death rates in the state.
Garcia hopes to put millions of dollars into several outpatient treatment centers that offer medication and therapy in the San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square-mile region that spans six central counties – Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Mineral, Rio Grande and Saguache. Some of the funds will also go to centers in two additional counties yet to be determined.
Southwest Colorado now has five facilities that offer people suffering from opioid addiction medication-assisted treatment, a highly sought-after option that offers medication to prevent overdose and withdrawal. But as medication-assisted treatment becomes more popular, addiction rates continue to rise and options for treatment remain limited, Montezuma County will desperately need another facility, said Sheriff Steve Nowlin.
“We are all going to be screaming for it,” he said.
In 2016, Montezuma County’s overdose death rate – between 38 and 52 people for every 100,000 – was among the highest in the state. In the county jail, nearly half of the 90 inmates are struggling with drug addiction in a facility that has one registered nurse on staff. Cortez has two clinics that offer medication-assisted treatment – the Cortez Recovery Center and the Axis Health System Center, which sees only existing patients. Two years ago, Montezuma County deputies started carrying Narcan, a drug that can reverse overdoses, but the county relies on donated supplies, which must be destroyed when they expire every year, Nowlin said.
“It’s just a revolving, never-ending cycle, and I’d like to break it somewhere,” he said.
It’s not a cycle unique to Southwest Colorado. Overdose deaths in Southwest Colorado have been steadily climbing since 2001 and reached a high of 1,012 statewide in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. More than half of those deaths were connected to opioids, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Garcia’s bill expands a 2017 pilot program that created opioid addiction treatment centers in Pueblo and Routt counties, where centers treated more than 700 patients in two years. The new bill asks for $5 million from marijuana tax dollars to add treatment centers in the San Luis Valley and two additional counties, to be determined based on need. Montezuma County is not on the list.
Medication-assisted treatment can be a game changer for people who are struggling to shake opioid addiction. The program can offer medications that treat cravings for opioids and withdrawal symptoms, which can be fatal. Once withdrawal symptoms are managed, patients can focus on counseling and recovery, said Stephanie Allred, senior clinical director at Axis Health System.
But the success and increasing demand for medication-assisted treatment will be limited by the overwhelming number of patients who need it, Allred said. While Axis can offer medication-assisted treatment to existing patients, its two clinics are not solely focused on the program. That leaves three dedicated addiction clinics in the region – Cortez’s, and the Colorado Addiction Treatment Services (formally called South Rockies Addiction Treatment Services) and the new Front Range Clinic, both in Durango.
“There are significantly more individuals struggling with opioid use than current providers have the capacity to treat,” Allred said.
As for the two undetermined locations for treatment centers, Garcia says he is looking for areas that can support a long-term facility with access to a diverse array of health providers. He is particularly looking for regions that are not already benefiting from federal funding to manage opioid addiction. While it has yet to be heard in committee, the bill has already sparked conversations about which two counties to add to the list, Garcia said.
Garcia, a licensed paramedic who works in Pueblo, thinks the solution to the state’s crisis is holistic treatment that offers medication and therapy to encourage addicts to put their lives back together.
“The goal is just not to give an antidote,” he said. “There is a question as to why people are struggling with opioid addiction.”