Capitol review: Lawmakers chipped away at opioid epidemic with 6 bills

Heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths inched upward in 2018, according to state data

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

Editor’s note: The Indy is publishing a series of short stories reviewing the 2019 legislative session in Colorado. Here, we focus on opioids. We also wrote about immigration, climate change, and criminal justice. Look for our story on voting/elections. 

State lawmakers made strides toward curbing the opioid epidemic in Colorado, which claims at least one victim every day. In the just-ended session, they passed policies to expand treatment in rural Colorado, to stock an overdose-reversal medication in public places, and to require some jails and prisons to offer withdrawal medication to certain inmates.

Those efforts come as opioid-related deaths held steady in 2018, with heroin and fentanyl overdoses inching up, according to state data. Meanwhile, contaminated needles and water are driving up cases of hepatitis C, a deadly virus.

Democrats took on an ambitious opioid-related agenda and passed these key bills:

SB19-008 — The Department of Corrections, which oversees the state’s prisons, will soon have to offer medication-assisted treatment to inmates who received such treatment in jail prior to their incarceration. This treatment includes methadone and buprenorphine, both of which ease withdrawals and curb cravings. Currently, the Department of Corrections offers practically no medication until an inmate is released. That medication, Vivitrol, blocks the effects of opioids. Jails receiving funding from the state, which covers most jails, would also have to provide a wider range of medications. Most jails offer no medication, which means they force inmates into withdrawal, which is painful and has led to several deaths in county jails.

SB19-227 — Hospitals will face fewer bureaucratic barriers when offering clean syringes for people to inject drugs like black tar heroin. Schools will be able to stock naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, administered to reverse an opioid overdose. The state is also going to set up a fund to purchase Narcan in bulk at a discounted price. The Office of Behavioral Health will come up with a policy that will establish conditions under which treatment providers can offer addiction treatment to people without identification. Harm-reduction advocates say the lack of identification is a major hurdle that delays treatment.

SB19-228 — Prescription opioids will soon have an addiction warning label and physicians will be prohibited from accepting any benefits for prescribing opioids.

SB19-001 — Rural Colorado could see more treatment locations where people addicted to opioids can find medication to ease withdrawal and cravings.

HB19-1009  — An additional $1 million will be available to help people recovering from an opioid addiction find housing.

SB19-1287 — The state will create a web-based system to track available treatment capacity at behavioral health facilities and at programs for medication-assisted treatment and withdrawal management for substance use disorders.

These legislative victories will not reverse the epidemic. About half of Colorado’s counties still lack a single facility where people experiencing withdrawal can find mediation to ease their suffering and curb cravings. Medicaid still does not cover inpatient addiction treatment. Several policy priorities that passed were pared down millions of dollars as Democrats sorted out their priorities in the $30.5 billion state budget.

There also is no place in Colorado where people can legally use drugs with clean syringes under the supervision of medical professionals, as is the case in some other countries. So-called supervised use sites still lack political support from Democrats and Republicans in Colorado even though studies show they can reduce overdoses and increase access to treatment. Not a single person has died at the supervised-use site in Vancouver, British Columbia, known as Insite, since it began operating in 2003.

Lawmakers may take up some of these issues when the Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee convenes this summer.

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