Nurse Connie Pacheco, left, and peer coach Jason Hotchkin do administrative work inside one of Front Range Clinic’s mobile health units for medication-assisted treatment, Aug. 10, 2020. The program received additional funding through Senate Bill 21-137. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)
When state Sen. Brittany Pettersen saw Colorado’s 2020 overdose death toll — the worst in at least 20 years — she thought of the families of those lost.
“We didn’t have the system set up to deal with that increase in need, and we’re never going to get those people back,” said Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who’s championed substance use-related legislation at the Capitol for years. “And so it makes me angry, frustrated, heartbroken, but also gives me strength to keep fighting.”
Pettersen knows what it’s like to have a family member gripped by a substance use disorder. Her mother, who’s now in recovery, once struggled with opioid addiction.
As chair of Colorado’s Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force, Pettersen sees an infusion of federal coronavirus relief money from the American Rescue Plan as a key opportunity to improve Colorado’s resources for people who need treatment for substance use disorders.
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The “transformational” task force — which is separate from the Behavioral Health Task Force that concluded its work last year — will decide how to allocate approximately $450 million in federal funding for pandemic-related mental health and substance use needs.
Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat, will serve as vice chair of the 16-member task force. Other members include:
• Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder
• Rep. Mary Bradfield, R-Colorado Springs
• Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City
• Rep. Tonya Van Beber, R-Weld County
• Sen. Chris Kolker, D-Centennial
• Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton
• Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa
• Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster
• Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera
• Dr. Robert Werthwein, executive director of the Office of Behavioral Health
• Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Department of Human Services
• Kim Bimestefer, executive director of the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing
• Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway
• Dean Williams, executive director of the Department of Corrections
The panel’s first meeting is scheduled for Aug. 16, Pettersen said, with additional meetings planned through January.
An additional 25 people with expertise in aspects of substance use and mental health care were appointed to serve as subpanel members to help advise the task force.
State faces acute needs
Data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a 29% increase in overdose deaths nationwide in 2020.
In Colorado, fatal drug overdoses increased approximately 38%.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 1,477 deaths statewide in 2020. In 2019, 1,072 people died of an overdose in Colorado.
Lawmakers already designated around $100 million for behavioral health programs through legislation that Pettersen and Winter sponsored during the 2021 session, Senate Bill 21-137. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed the bill into law on June 28.
Titled the Behavioral Health Recovery Act, SB-137 designated $26 million for a system to coordinate mental health and substance use care; $18 million for training and incentives for behavioral health workers; $10 million for substance use treatment through Medicaid managed service organizations; and $9 million in behavioral health grant funding for counties, among other initiatives.
With the additional $450 million in federal funding that’s yet to be allocated, Pettersen said she hopes the task force will look at ways to improve Colorado’s new substance use benefit for Medicaid patients. The new program — which Pettersen believes was underfunded — has shown disappointing results in its first year, she said, with many people unable to access treatment that is now supposed to be covered.
“We need to make sure that this is a top priority for us to fully fund,” Pettersen said. “We didn’t bring this benefit to be another Band-Aid approach. This is supposed to help fill the gap in one of the biggest needs that we have in the state, which is access to inpatient residential treatment and detox, and the lack of money that goes to fund those critical services.”
State data show the growing impact of fentanyl, an opioid that can be deadly in small amounts and is increasingly present in street drugs including counterfeit pills and cocaine. Colorado saw fentanyl-associated deaths more than double — from 222 deaths in 2019 to 540 deaths in 2020, according to data from CDPHE’s Vital Statistics Program.
Pettersen also wants to see the task force work on policies to increase access to fentanyl test strips, so people who use drugs can test them for the powerful substance, and clean syringes, to protect IV drug users from illnesses such as HIV and hepatitis C.
Both of those strategies fall into the category of “harm reduction,” a term used to describe strategies that aim to reduce the negative consequences of substance use, rather than take a zero-tolerance approach.
As executive director of the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center, Lisa Raville oversees the state’s largest syringe exchange program along with other harm reduction programs and resources for people with substance use disorders.
“If stigma, shame and incarceration worked with drug use, we’d have wrapped this up a long time ago,” said Raville, who will serve as a subpanel member.
Raville plans to advocate for establishing overdose prevention sites, where people would be able to use drugs under trained supervision; improving medication-assisted treatment for people who use stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine; and making sure “everybody on earth” has naloxone, a life-saving opioid overdose reversal drug.
Van Beber, the task force member from Weld County, told Newsline she’s open to hearing others’ ideas on how to tackle the behavioral health issues worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, Van Beber hopes to work on improving mental health care for young people and improving access to care in rural areas of the state.
Colorado lost 1,294 people to suicide in 2020, including 101 people ages 10 to 19. The numbers were on par with those seen in 2019. And in May of this year, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for youth mental health, citing high numbers of emergency room visits for acute mental health needs.
“Isolating young people, which is always never a good idea, has taken a toll on our youth,” Van Beber said.
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