Colorado is set to receive about $385 million to combat the opioid crisis through national settlements with major drug manufacturers and distributors, with millions of those funds going to Weld County.
The state this month reached nearly 100% of participation in agreements to distribute the funds with cities and counties, ensuring the state will receive its full share, according to a news release from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which has coordinated the state’s settlement framework. All but four municipalities in Weld County have signed onto the county’s agreement, which establishes a regional council to distribute the funds.
County attorney Bruce Barker said the county is following up with those municipalities to see if they’ll participate in the agreement.
Weld County’s opioid death rate has continued to climb to new highs in recent years, tracking with state and national trends. Weld County Public Health spokesman Eric Aakko said 36 people died in 2020 due to opioid overdoses in the county, which comes out to an age-adjusted death rate of about 10.7 per 100,000 — the highest it’s ever been.
“We don’t have all the data yet analyzed for 2021, but it’s likely it’s going to be higher for 2021,” Aakko said.
Aakko identified two major drivers for the rising opioid deaths: too many opioids being prescribed — an issue regulators have been working to address — as well as illegal drug trafficking involving opioids and drugs laced with fentanyl.
Through settlements with Johnson and Johson and three major drug distributors, as well as Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, Mallinckrodt and McKinsey and Company, Colorado is set to receive about $385 million. About 60% of that will be distributed to 19 regions, with the rest split up among local governments, the state and infrastructure. In the framework, Weld County is its own region, which is being allocated about 3.89% of the regional funds.
The state has already received more than $8 million from a $10 million settlement with McKinsey and Company, and larger payments are expected later this year, according to Heidi Williams, director of opioid response in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. Once those come in, officials expect the regional councils to start kicking into high gear.
The Johnson and Johnson settlement dollars will be paid out over nine years, most during the first three years, and distributor settlements are to be paid over 18 years.
Barker said Weld appears to be well ahead of other regions, though the money isn’t yet available to the region.
The county’s agreement — which has participation so far from Erie, Evans, Firestone, Frederick, Greeley, Hudson, Johnstown and Windsor — sets up a council with 15 voting members. Those include representatives from Weld, Greeley, Windsor, Hudson, a north county municipality, a south county municipality, the county public health department, the sheriffs office, Greeley, Evans and Windsor police departments, a north county law enforcement agency, a south county law enforcement agency, the county district attorney’s office and the county district court.
Non-voting members may also be appointed by regional participating local governments, potentially including behavioral health partners, health care providers, recovery or treatment experts, city or county representatives, a representative from the state attorney general’s office, community representatives, preferable those with lived experience of the opioid crisis, and harm reduction experts.
The funds are approved for opioid abatement solutions including treatment and prevention efforts including medication-assisted treatment, supportive housing, mental health treatment, expanded telehealth, fellowships, scholarships and much more. Other efforts may include community anti-drug coalitions, increasing the availability of naloxone and other drugs that treat overdoses and law enforcement expenditures relating to the opioid epidemic.
Aakko said county officials hope to use settlement funds to provide the coroner’s office with funding to do toxicology tests on suspected opioid deaths, a process that can be expensive but would help the county better identify specific opioids behind an overdose death.
Outreach efforts will be important, Aakko said, due to the stigma of seeking treatment in a culture geared toward independence.
“There’s a lot of these services out there, and people may not realize that they’re available and that there should be no embarrassment of seeking treatment if you need it,” Aakko said. “That’s part of what I think some of the education and prevention messaging that this group will be getting out once they get up and running.”
Mark Lawley, executive director of Weld County Public Health and Environment, said there will need to be a focus on education. He said there are also challenges to getting treatment including identifying those in need and finding them a program that can help.
“Getting out into the community and having frank conversations about what this drug does and talk to people about prevention and getting people into the school systems and those kinds of things,” Lawley said. “The second part of that is treatment, making sure that those folks that have an addiction to those opioids are getting the treatment they need.”
More resources and collaboration will also help in the fight against the opioid crisis, he added. He pointed to the Colorado Opioid Synergy for Larimer and Weld counties, a network of medication-assisted treatment clinics, as an example of the kind of collaboration that’s needed.
“Obviously it just doesn’t happen in one community. It’s throughout the entire county,” Lawley said. “And then you’ve got to look at the regional impacts, which I think groups like CO-SLAW are important to that because there’s no boundary or county line as it relates to those kinds of things.”
Stacey Aurzada, a deputy city attorney for the city of Greeley, said city officials have looked at purposes for the funding including law enforcement, co-responder programs and referral services through the court, as well as supportive housing.
As of Thursday, 52 states and territories have signed on to the $26 billion opioid agreement with the nation’s three major pharmaceutical distributors and Johnson and Johnson over their role in creating and fueling the opioid crisis. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser believes multistate resolutions such as these lead to the best outcomes: getting money to people who are hurting sooner rather than later.
Litigation actions are ongoing against Teva Pharmaceutical Company and other pharmacies. Though he’s unsure whether and when multistate settlements could happen with them, Weiser said they’re aware of their potential liability.
Weiser said the settlement distribution framework is a novel effort, one he thinks could help bring about collaboration to solve other issues.
A tenth of the state’s funds will go to an infrastructure fund, providing additional funding and support for more rural, remote areas so they can respond to the epidemic. The Colorado Department of Law’s Opioid Crisis Response Plan suggests two major ways to address opioid issues in rural parts of the state: implement programs to recruit and retain addiction and mental health professionals with diverse backgrounds and abilities who are skilled in the provision of care to diverse populations in rural Colorado and increase access to rural treatment and recovery programs.
The opioid settlement framework isn’t the only work by Weiser’s office to battle the epidemic. Fentanyl is a major factor driving overdose deaths. Fentanyl-related deaths increased 50% from 2019 to 2020.
“For the last decade, we’ve been ramping down these prescription pills, about 44% less today than they were a decade ago,” Weiser said. “But during that time, fentanyl has been wrapping up to take its place. And it is now a big part.”
In December, Weiser announced he’s working with state legislators and law enforcement officials on comprehensive legislation to address fentanyl in the state. He said the legislation could include more support for law enforcement investigations, awareness, prevention and a lot more treatment and recovery pathways, in addition to harm reduction programs.
One priority is getting medication-assisted treatment into jails, Weiser said. Another is providing drug courts with resources for medication-assisted treatment.
“The rise of fentanyl … is creating more overdose deaths than ever before,” Weiser said. “In 2020, nationwide, we lost more people to drug overdose deaths, most of which are opioids than we lost in gun violence and car crashes combined.”
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Weld County well-situated for opioid settlement funds, expected to start flowing this year – Greeley Tribune