For El Paso County’s newest commissioner, Carrie Geitner, the opioid epidemic that has claimed the lives of thousands of Coloradans is more than just a public health issue or political problem to be solved. After suffering the loss of a family member to addiction, the issue for her is also personal.
“There may be a lot of perceptions around how we feel as a county, but I actually lost my brother to a heroin overdose,” Geitner told a room full of state and county leaders, addiction treatment and recovery providers, law enforcement officials and community members Monday. “The opioid crisis has affected more families than what we often realize, and there are many of us who have those experiences.”
Geitner shared her story as part of a regional town hall with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, which drew local officials and representatives from drug treatment and recovery organizations serving El Paso and Teller counties to downtown Colorado Springs, to discuss how the Pikes Peak region will use millions of dollars it will receive over the next two decades to mitigate problems caused by the opioid epidemic.
“I watched it tear apart my family,” she said. “I think we are all really dedicated to figuring out how we can best help people that are struggling with this.”
Colorado received almost $10 million after consulting firm McKinsey & Company agreed to a $573 million settlement in February. The settlement ended an investigation by a coalition of state attorneys general, including Colorado’s Weiser, into the firm’s role in working with opioid makers to market their drugs and maximize profits while a nationwide addiction crisis grew. Those funds, Weiser said, will be used to mitigate problems caused by the ongoing epidemic through a regional-based governance body made up of leaders and community members from El Paso and Teller counties.
A statewide council will ensure the funds are being spent appropriately, Weiser said.
The Pikes Peak region can expect to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to support its local response to the opioid epidemic, he said. Additional local government monies and settlement payments from negotiations with other opioid companies could also be added, Weiser said.
Those funds will be separated into local, regional and statewide buckets to pay for various treatment and recovery programs, he said. Local governments can use their monies to support their own programs or may pool some or all of their allocated dollars into the regional fund, he said.
A third fund will support areas around the state that do not have existing infrastructure in place to properly respond to the crisis, and a fourth fund — a state share — will support statewide programs like workforce development, for example, Weiser said.
“It’s significant. From a planning standpoint, it’s going to give you a range of options,” he said. “This is going to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We have a bunch of money coming in, creating a chance to catalyze change. My goal is to help support and enable that change in every community so that we can save lives.”
In 2020, more Americans died of drug overdoses — mostly opioids — than in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined, Weiser added. In Colorado, more than 5,000 people have died of opioid overdose in the last decade and additional 2,000 have lost their lives to fentanyl and heroin use, he said.
The state’s response is critical because Colorado only has about 30% of the total drug capacity needed to properly treat residents struggling with addiction, he said.
“That money is going to help us build more drug treatment capacity, because we do not have enough of it,” he said.
The criminal justice system has borne the brunt of the opioid response because many people who struggle with substance abuse are also likely to find themselves in jail or the court system, he said.
About a third of people with opioid abuse disorder have been involved with the criminal justice system in the previous year, Weiser said. But despite evidence showing the effectiveness of addiction treatment in jails, people with opioid abuse disorder who are also incarcerated rarely receive medication and are 130 times more likely than the general population to die of an overdose, he said.
“If we can provide treatment (and) recovery pathways, we can enable people to treat their underlying condition as opposed to what has been often a cycle of being incarcerated, leaving and coming back,” he said.
El Paso County Commission Chairman Stan VanderWerf, who shared how he personally struggled with his father’s alcohol addiction, said law enforcement’s role in the crisis response is vital.
“All of the law enforcement, all the incarceration, all the trials (are) ultimately about rehabilitation, so that is a key component of those conversations,” VanderWerf said.
Springs Recovery Connection CEO Trudy Strewler Hodges encouraged people who are struggling or have struggled with opioid addiction to consider joining the regional coalition as non-voting members to provide valuable insight and input to regional response efforts.
“It’s important for people with lived experiences to be heard,” Hodges said.
Weiser and others agreed, suggesting family members who have been affected by the epidemic consider joining the regional body as well.
“In my experience — and this is, again, Colorado at our best — people who suffered that sort of trauma and want to take the pain they’ve had and turn it into a purpose to help others can be valuable partners,” Weiser said.