Opioid Settlement Money Heading to Southwest Colorado, But Will it Be Enough to Stem the Tide of Addiction?
$26 billion over 18 years.
According to an announcement made recently by a group of state attorneys general, that’s how much three of the biggest opioid distributors and one of the drug’s biggest makers will have to pay American communities.
State and local governments across the country sued the opioid distributors, plus opioid producer Johnson & Johnson, over their role in the opioid epidemic that has claimed almost 500,000 lives in the last two decades.
Colorado is one of the states involved in the lawsuit. According to Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, southwest Colorado, including Montezuma County, will be receiving a portion of the settlement.
“Southwest Colorado has never had a better opportunity to enable inpatient drug treatment, drug recovery, prevention, and education efforts than we have right now because of this money,” Weiser says.
But he also acknowledges that it’s more complicated than throwing money at the opioid crisis. He’s been visiting communities across the state to better understand their needs. His office is also setting up a fund to provide support to rural communities that lack the infrastructure to address substance abuse issues.“
This is a unique opportunity, we need to seize it, which means people need to be aware that we have it,” he says. “People need to be thoughtful and creative. People need to work together to find the best solutions.”
Weiser also says the only way to effectively utilize the settlement funds is to empower local voices. “It's going be up to that region to decide how to spend that money exactly. And they're going to have to set up a governance board and have the right sort of individuals to make decisions.”
Shak Powers is one of those individuals. He’s the County Administrator for Montezuma County. He’s supportive of the settlement, but also doesn’t think the money will be enough to make a difference by itself.
“With the amount of money that we're talking about over the time we're talking about, none of us will be able to make an effective impact on our own,” he says.
The settlement funds will be distributed to thousands of communities over the next 18 years. But Powers says Montezuma County will only get about $20,000 a year. And treatment for opioid abuse disorders is expensive, especially in rural areas like southwest Colorado.
So Montezuma County is considering joining forces with other local governments.
“One thing that's being discussed is to have all of the local governments pool their resources with the resources that the region as a whole is getting,” says Powers. “That would give us just over $3.1 million, and then maybe collectively we can use that to make more of an impact.”
There are also restrictions on how the settlement funds can be used. According to Weiser, they can only be applied to address opioid abuse.
But in Montezuma County, opioids aren’t the biggest substance abuse problem.
Stephanie Allred is the Clinical Director at Axis Health System in Cortez. “We have individuals in our community who are struggling with opiate use,” she says. “But it's not the only problem. We still have people using methamphetamines and alcohol, which is always at the top of the list.”
She also says addressing substance abuse disorders is complex. For example, prevention, treatment, and recovery should all be considered important parts of the process. “How are we going to combine resources to be able to serve our whole population and not just get stuck solving one part of the problem that our community is facing?” Allred says.
She adds that the settlement money will be a positive force in addressing substance abuse in Montezuma County. Especially since local voices are being empowered in the disbursement process.
“I'm very hopeful about the structure that's been set up that it really is being driven locally,” she says. “They're giving that authority and decision making to local groups who have good information about what the gaps are, what the needs are.”
But before any money can be distributed, a number of pieces have to fall into place, according to Attorney General Weiser. They include distributing thorough guidelines on how the funds can be used and actually bringing together local governing groups to manage funds.