Opioid-addiction treatment slips on priority list as Senate advances state budget

Sen. Brittany Pettersen, treatment advocate: Talk outweighs action in battle against drugs

Brittany Pettersen on the Senate floor during a debate over the red fag bill on March 28, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

State Sen. Brittany Pettersen never figured she would have to fight so hard to persuade her colleagues to expand opioid-addiction treatment in Colorado.

The numbers, she said, speak for themselves: About 48 Coloradans die from opioids like heroin and Fentanyl every month. Contaminated needles are driving up the number of cases of hepatitis C, a deadly virus. State agencies spend tens of millions of dollars fighting the ravages of drugs, but even so, about half of Colorado’s counties still lack basic treatment options.

Senate President Leroy Garcia called opioid abuse an “epidemic” in his opening day speech in January, and the session’s very first bill called for more opioid treatment in rural Colorado, where drugs take the greatest toll.

But on Wednesday, Pettersen said, “I feel like I’m screaming into the void.”

“Everyone likes to use it in their opening day speeches, but nobody likes to actually prioritize it,” she said of opioid-addiction treatment.

Pettersen was referring to the fate of two bills she sponsored this session: one that would bring opioid-addiction treatment to prisons and another that would make an overdose-reversal drug, Narcan, widely available in Colorado.

Her fellow senators have declined to fund either measure so far, and the odds of finding the money between now and the end of the session on May 3 grow slimmer every day.

Democrats came to the Capitol with a progressive agenda and plans for new, expensive programs. Ultimately, many of those programs, including Pettersen’s addiction-treatment plans, were left out of the $30.5 billion state budget, which the Senate passed Thursday and sent to the House for work before it is finalized.

Speaking to the chamber on Thursday, Senate President Garcia acknowledged that funding for some priorities fell short this session, even while lawmakers did find money for all-day kindergarten, correctional officer pay raises and the Colorado Water Plan.

“For many of us, some of these investments may not be enough,” he said.

A whiteboard inside the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver on Feb. 8, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

Pettersen’s SB-008, introduced on the first day of the session, sought $7 million to expand opioid-use-disorder treatment in the state jails and prisons. It would require the Department of Corrections to offer certain inmates a wider range of medications designed to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Colorado inmates, roughly 70 percent of whom have an addiction to drugs or alcohol, receive little to no treatment while in prison. Naltrexone, which blocks the effects of opioids to disincentivize drug use, is available to inmates upon release, and pregnant inmates can access methadone, which staves off cravings and curbs withdrawal symptoms, but can be addictive.

Jails in Denver, Boulder, El Paso and Arapahoe counties are expanding their addiction treatment, but most other counties in Colorado don’t offer any medication. Instead, inmates experience involuntary withdrawal, which can be painful and, in rare circumstances, fatal. The bill would require jails to offer medication to inmates if they accept state money.

Medication-assisted treatment in jail not only prevents withdrawal, medical experts say, but it also increases the likelihood that people will stick with the program and stay off harder drugs after they are released.  

“When you put them in jail without access to treatment, not only are they at risk of dying from withdrawal, but you also set them up to overdose when they leave because they don’t have the same tolerance,” Pettersen said.

The second of Pettersen’s bills would have helped expand access to naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, a life-saving drug that reverses overdoses if it’s administered soon enough. A 2017 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found laws increasing access to naloxone were associated with a 9 to 11 percent reduction in opioid-related deaths. Pettersen would like to make naloxone readily available statewide to emergency responders, police and even parents with adult children who are opioid dependent.

Senate leaders have not introduced the legislation, however, which means it will may die on the vine.

Pettersen’s bills weren’t the only opioid-related measures in the legislature.

Two other bills that support current treatment programs did receive full funding. One funnels an additional $4.3 million into a housing voucher program to help anyone recovering from opioid use disorder find housing. Another gives the Office of Behavioral Health an additional $5.4 million for grant programs to expand treatment across the state. 

But in the grand scheme of what Pettersen calls a $1 billion epidemic, she said this money amounts to “Band-Aids.”

She believes that addiction still carries a stigma, and that while many lawmakers may not admit it, they consider addiction a moral failing of sorts.

People with addiction “are easy to forget about and disregard for most people,” Pettersen told The Colorado Independent. Her mother is recovering from an addiction to heroin, and she acknowledges the issue is personal for her.

“You’re not going to have lobbyists working on these issues. People don’t make money off of saving these people’s lives.”

The Lakewood Democrat is, however, hoping that a lawsuit filed by the state attorney general against the manufacturer of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin might result in a potential settlement that could help fund addiction treatment here. Oklahoma reached a $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma earlier this week, and Pettersen and other lawmakers believe the money could be used to build out treatment capacity.

Earlier this session, about a dozen people showed up to the Capitol, holding pictures of loved ones lost to overdoses in public stairwells and restrooms. They were there to support another bill Pettersen hoped to introduce, one that would create a supervised-use site in Colorado where people addicted to opioids could use in the presence of trained medical professionals and receive referrals to access treatment. But the legislation was scuttled before it was introduced; several Democrats, including Senate President Garcia, declined to take a position on the so-called supervised-use sites, and Pettersen abandoned it.

Pettersen isn’t giving up her cause. The House, which has yet to take up the state budget, could approve funding for her bills. It’s a long shot, and there’s no guarantee the Senate would then agree to it in the final vote, but Pettersen remains determined.

“The fight isn’t over,” she said.

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