GUEST COLUMN: Addressing the opioid epidemic

By: Leroy Garcia
February 28, 2017 Updated: March 6, 2017 at 2:26 pm
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The battle against drug addiction, particularly opioids, remains one of the most pressing public health challenges facing communities across the country in 2017. It is a very real epidemic that is not only affecting the present of our communities, but our future as well.

For those of you reading, there's a very good chance you know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who is battling addiction. Addiction to opioids such as heroin, morphine, and prescription painkillers is now classified as one of the top epidemics in our country, according to the Center for Disease Control. In Colorado, the impact has been devastating for many of our local communities. In 2015, deaths from opioid painkillers outnumbered all homicides in Colorado. Since 2000, there have been more than 10,000 drug overdoses in the state.

My community of Southern Colorado has been particularly impacted by the heroin and opioid epidemic. Despite being home to only 6 percent of the state's population, Southern Colorado represented 18.1 percent of heroin treatment admissions in 2014. In Pueblo County, deaths from overdose doubled between 2012 and 2015.

Opioid addiction can harm the entire community and create serious negative consequences including spikes in crime and adverse outcomes on young people in our communities.

As a paramedic and faculty member teaching Emergency Medical Services at Pueblo Community College, I have seen firsthand the public health challenges our community is facing with trying to address the opioid epidemic. I have also been a witness to the great potential of medical treatment to help remedy this challenge. The power of proper treatment especially related to addiction cannot be overstated.

Yet, despite all the figures we have showing how this crisis is afflicting our country, access to life-saving treatment and care is just too limited

That is why this year, I am sponsoring a bill that would create a bold and innovative program to directly tackle the serious challenges of opioid addiction in Southeast Colorado.

Senate bill 17-074 will create a two-year pilot program through the College of Nursing at the University of Colorado designed to expand access to life-saving medication-assisted treatment (MAT). MAT includes a comprehensive program of both medication and behavioral therapy that is proven to be clinically effective and helps to reduce the need for inpatient detoxification services.

The key to the pilot program is grants to facilitate vital training for both nurse practitioners and physician assistants to help them implement treatment. This treatment will include the drug Buprenorphine, which was outlined as part of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016. Currently, relatively few medical professionals are able to prescribe this medication, even though it could be key to saving lives. This bill will help remove the barriers to offering this treatment and expand access across the region under a regulated and structured program.

By providing our medical professionals with a set of tools and resources, this plan sets up an organized coalition to treat and alleviate opioid addiction. The creation of this program will help Pueblo and Routt counties, two areas deeply impacted by this issue, move to the forefront of efforts to combat opioid drug overdoses.

The creation of this program marks a substantial investment in lifesaving treatment to communities facing the challenges of addiction. Additionally, the program will submit a detailed report to state officials to ensure accountability and also serve as a guide for other statewide programs to implement a similar program going forward.

By working together and empowering the medical community through proven treatment programs, we can develop a working model to reduce addiction, improve communities, and save lives.

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Leroy Garcia is the State Senator for District 3, which represents Pueblo, and is also the Senate Assistant Minority Leader.

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