Southwest Colorado’s congressional delegation has introduced a series of bills in an effort to combat the nationwide opioid epidemic.
The bills were introduced last week – the same week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data showing opioid overdoses up 30 percent nationwide from September 2016 to July 2017.
Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, introduced the Alternatives to Opioids (ALTO) in the Emergency Department Act with a bipartisan coalition in the Senate. Rep. Tipton, R-Cortez, introduced a bipartisan companion bill in the House.
The ALTO Act would provide grants for a test program for opioid alternatives in prescribing pain medications in some emergency rooms across the country. The legislation is endorsed by the Colorado Hospital Association (CHA), which tested an opioid alternative program in 10 Colorado emergency rooms that reduced opioid usage by 36 percent in six months.
“We do need to be looking at alternatives,” Tipton said. “If we can help incentivize that and look at different treatment regimens as opposed to immediately prescribing opioids, we can start to move in a proactive way to eliminate some of the problems.”
Gardner echoed a similar sentiment.
“I think there are a lot of alternatives that we should be looking at, and how we spread those best practices around the country are incredibly important,” Gardner said in a phone interview last week.
“This act combines a lot of good elements to address an unfortunately growing epidemic.”
Nationally, Colorado ranks 12th in opioid abuse of prescription opioids, according to CHA. In 2016, the CDC reported 942 overdose deaths in Colorado.
The recent CDC data doesn’t include Colorado, but Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper believes the state is turning a corner on opioids but is seeing a transition to heroin.
“It’s almost like whack-a-mole,” Hickenlooper said in a phone interview Friday. “We need to fight back in one place and then you see another increase that’s related coming up almost immediately.”
The governor said Congress should take one important step.
“They should stop the pharmaceutical companies from marketing the opioids to doctors,” Hickenlooper said in a previous interview. “I mean, that’s common sense.”
Tipton and Gardner both said the governor’s proposal should be considered, along with all other policy solutions, but didn’t specifically endorse it.
“If there’s a way we can do this more effectively, then we should look at every alternative,” Gardner said.
To successfully reduce the crisis, which the acting director of the CDC describes as getting “worse,” Tipton said partnerships are needed at all levels of government.
“It’s got to be the federal government, the state government and ... our communities,” Tipton said.
The federal government isn’t appropriating enough money to make partnerships successful, the governor said.
“We just keep hearing stories that they are strapped for cash,” Hickenlooper said. “The president’s proposal was significant cuts in things like the ability to address the opioid epidemic. They don’t have the resources that they had even two years ago.”
In an effort to combat fraudulent prescriptions, Bennet has co-sponsored legislation to better track controlled substances prescribed by doctors. The Every Prescription Conveyed Securely (EPCS) Act would direct Medicare providers to electronically prescribe controlled drugs covered under Medicare Part-D to better track opioid use.
“An epidemic of this magnitude requires us to address all aspects of the problem, starting with how providers prescribe opioids,” Bennet said in a news release.
Economic well-being is another aspect of addiction plaguing rural communities, which are hit hardest by the overdose epidemic.
“If you take that economically distressed community map and you lay that over the nation’s prescription drug abuse challenge, it’s hard to tell which map is which,” Gardner said in a speech to rural health care providers in Washington in early February.
Tipton said these areas have reason to be hopeful for economic improvement.
“I think we have some good news on the horizon with the tax bill we just passed,” Tipton said.
“It empowers people with more of their money. Also, (it helps) businesses on the tax front to be able to create more jobs, to be able to put more people to work and maintain the jobs we have.”
Tipton acknowledged that the government must also recognize that the path to recovery for many addicts is long.
“We also have to take into consideration that this is going to be some long-term treatment,” Tipton said.
“We need to not only stem the tide to keep it from increasing, but then to be able to deal with people, many of whom became addicted not on their own volition.”
Andrew Eversden is an intern with The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.