A years-long effort to get millions of dollars to Colorado communities hard hit by the opioid addiction crisis is entering its final stage, with Arvada and Commerce City on Monday night becoming the first metro area cities to sign on to a statewide settlement agreement designed to hold to account pain pill companies.
City councils in Brighton, Edgewater and Federal Heights are expected to follow suit on Tuesday night, with many more cities and counties across Colorado likely to approve the legal agreement in the coming months.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser told The Denver Post on Monday that the state needs to have its role in a $26 billion multistate settlement with major opioid manufacturers and distributors “nailed down” by the end of the year. That means getting most counties and municipalities in the state to bless the settlement in the coming weeks.
“This is a transformative opportunity,” Weiser said of the $400 million Colorado is due to receive from a nationwide settlement agreed to earlier this year by McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and Johnson & Johnson — as well as a separate settlement involving Purdue Pharma — for their roles in making and distributing opioids.
There were nearly 70,000 opioid-related deaths in the United States in 2020, with 956 of those occurring in Colorado. More than 7,600 people have died from opioid overdoses in the state over the past 20 years, according to state health data.
“It’s urban, it’s rural, it’s Black, it’s white, it’s rich, it’s poor,” Weiser said of the devastating sweep of opioid addiction in Colorado. “Many parts of our state need drug treatment and recovery centers.”
That’s especially true in Colorado’s southwest corner, he said, where those in need of in-patient rehabilitation services in Cortez or Durango have to travel as far as Grand Junction to get them. In the opposite corner of the state, Weiser said residents in Sterling and Yuma needing similar help have to go all the way to Greeley.
“We are a long way from having the capacity we need,” he said.
The attorney general said the money headed to the state from the opioid settlement can be used to fund treatment, recovery, education and prevention and harm reduction efforts. His office formed 19 regions to which the bulk of the settlement money — 60% — will be allocated.
Meanwhile, 20% of the $400 million will go directly to cities and counties throughout the state — an approach Weiser labeled a “bottom-up solution.” For Arvada, that translates to approximately $1 million that the city will receive from the settlement, to be spent on opioid-related costs over the next 18 years.
Mark Deven, Arvada’s city manager, said he is happy that so much of the money is going directly to communities as opposed to being held and parceled out by the state.
“It emphasizes the point that local governments will have a role in how these funds are spent,” Deven said.
Arvada will likely partner with area drug treatment facilities to help people struggling with opioid addiction, Deven said. The issue of drug dependence, especially with the explosion of fentanyl deaths in recent years, manifests itself in the city through the increasing number of people who find themselves living in crisis, Deven said.
“I think opioid abuse and addiction has played a significant role in homelessness in Arvada,” he said.
One-hundred-seventeen people died of an opioid overdose in Jefferson County in 2020, according to state data.
Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said the structure of the opioid settlement in Colorado has been in the works for a couple of years. Its emphasis on local funding, he said, is its greatest strength.
“This is money going out to where it needs to go,” he said. “Until you can reasonably treat addiction no matter where it happens in the state, it’s going to continue.”
The money won’t arrive in municipal coffers right away, Weiser said. Dozens of counties and cities still need to sign the agreement with his office approving the settlement, before setting up regional governing bodies to receive the funds. The first dollars likely won’t go out until next year and then will continue flowing until 2040.
“The most consequential and heavy lifting work is going to be putting that money into prevention to reverse this crisis,” Weiser said.
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