Opioid epidemic settlement money begins to come to Colorado

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COLORADO SPRINGS — 2020 was by far the deadliest year in Colorado’s stretch of the opioid crisis ripping through the United States.

1,457 people died from overdose in 2020, up from 1,062 in 2019.

“I watched it tear apart my family,” said Carrie Geitner.

Geitner lost her brother to a heroin overdose. She said his addiction began with opioids and spiraled to harder drugs.

Now, she’s the El Paso County Commissioner representing District 2. Along with her fellow commissioners and leaders from Colorado Springs, she met with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser as he met with the group to discuss how to spend the money his office has won in settlements from lawsuits, like that against Purdue Pharma.

“This was a crisis manufactured in the boardroom, most notably by Purdue Pharma which pushed opioids, marketed them aggressively, including to physicians who overprescribed them because they were making billions of dollars,” Weiser said.

The money from settlements will go to cities, counties, and regions. The regions will be made up of a board of local leaders and will decide how to spend the money best.

There are strings attached to the money that must go to treatment, recovery, education, and prevention around opioid abuse and addiction.

“We have to be able to help families identify when there are abuses going on. Sometimes, that’s the first step,” Geitner added.

Geitner was one of several people to say that the stigma around addiction can prevent the necessary conversations from happening. She hopes that more people are willing to just talk about addiction because she worries the shame her brother may have felt from his vices isolated him.

“There is a desire we all have to be a productive member of society, and when you are not able to contribute in that way, and you’re not able to be there for your family and friends because you’re struggling with that addiction, it compounds those emotions that you have and makes it even harder,” Geitner said.

In El Paso County, the El Paso County Coroner reports three straight years of declining overdoses. There were 133 in 2018, 130 in 2019, and 108 in 2020. Fentanyl was the leading killer, taking 37 lives, followed by 36 taken by heroin.

“We already know where the gaps are, and so, if we can pull together these key individuals, we can really change the outcome for these individuals in the future,” said Trudy Hodges, the CEO of the Springs Recovery Connection.

Hodges says, “it’s important for people with lived experiences to be able to be heard” when talking about addiction and recovery. At Springs Recovery Connection, “Peer Recovery Coaches” are people who have been successful in their recovery and use that experience to help those still struggling with addiction.

She says it’s one of the tools in the tool belt and the more tools the community has, the better.

She points to the lack of a long-term, in-patient treatment facility as one of the tools that are missing but could be addressed by the settlement money.

Hodges says it’s important to realize that different tools work better for some people rather than others.

“We can help people feel like they can reach out for the support they need, rather than create a stigma that makes them feel like they’re being pushed away,” Hodges noted.

Monday was the first step for the regional partners to get together and start thinking about who should be on the regional board overseeing the allocation of settlement money. The board will create a two-year plan to spend the money over an 18-year allotment. Weiser says that communities across the states have the freedom to decide how to spend the money outside of the requirements.

“There are a range of factors that got us into this whole thing; there’s going to be a range of solutions that get us out of it.” He said, “We right now know some of those solutions…but we’re going to learn as we go about what the needs are, about what the opportunities are.”

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