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Health & Prevention Report: Opioid Lawsuit Funds Will Reach Montezuma County, But It Won't Be Much

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Since the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people have died in the opioid epidemic. Now, communities from across the US are suing major opioid makers and distributors in one of the biggest federal lawsuits of all time. Those communities include the state of Colorado. On this week's Health & Prevention Report, KSJD's Lucas Brady Woods looks at what that means for Montezuma County.

26 billion dollars over 18 years.

According to an announcement made this week 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 thousand lives in the last two decades.

Colorado is one of the states involved in that lawsuit.

And Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser says, that means 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 in order to better understand their particular needs. His office is also setting up a fund to provide support to rural communities that lack infrastructure for addressing 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 gonna be up to that region to decide how to spend that money exactly. And they're gonna 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 that ends up reaching the county 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.

After the settlement money is spread out over the thousands of communities involved, and over the course of 18 years, Powers says Montezuma County is only going to end up getting about $20,000 a year.

On top of that, treatment for opioid abuse disorders is expensive, especially in rural areas like Southwest Colorado that don’t have enough substance abuse resources to begin with.

Because of that, Montezuma County is considering joining forces with other local governments in the region.

“One thing that is 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.”

But he’s also concerned those impacts could be damaged if all the communities involved can’t get on the same page.

There's also another issues. There will be restrictions on how the settlement funds can be used. According to Attorney General Weiser, they can only be applied to addressing opioid abuse specifically. But in Montezuma County, opioids aren’t actually the biggest problem when it comes to substance abuse. 

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. You know, 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 as important parts of the process.

“How are we gonna 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.

But she also says, at the end of the day, 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.

 

Those include distributing thorough guidelines on how the funds can be used and actually bringing together local governing groups to manage funds.

If you’re currently struggling with opioid use, the Axis crisis care team is standing by and can be reached at (970) 247-5245 or by visiting axishealthsystem.org.

Health and prevention reporting on KSJD is made possible by support from Celebrating Healthy Communities, the Montezuma County Health Department, and Southwest Health System.

 

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