Many in our community are suffering from opioid addiction.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency due to opioid use. In 2018, Colorado recorded 543 opioid overdose deaths. This number surged in 2020, increasing by a whopping 59%. It was predicted that the total for 2021 will show about 1,800 people died from opioid overdose. Three-fourths of those deaths will be in metro areas. For the 12 months ending in March 2021, 319 people died in Denver.
This human tragedy impacts local communities throughout the state. Local government workers and resources are strained responding to the crisis. This did not have to happen. Denver joined the State of Colorado and 4,000 states and municipalities in filing lawsuits against opioid manufactures, distributors and pharmacies. The lawsuits demonstrated that the manufacturers overstated benefits and downplayed risks of the drugs as they aggressively marketed their addictive products. Distributors failed to monitor suspicious orders and pharmacies were liable for contributing to the epidemic.
This past summer, a $26 billion settlement was reached with three of the biggest distributors of opioids and Johnson & Johnson. If the settlement goes as planned, those funds will be paid out over 18 years, with Colorado receiving an estimated $394 million. Denver has entered a Memorandum of Understanding with the Colorado Attorney General, Colorado counties and municipalities throughout the state on how those funds are to be distributed, with Denver’s allocation at approximately $39 million.
I have been appointed to serve on the Denver Regional Opioid Council. This 11-member committee will develop a two-year plan on how the funds will be spent to abate the impact of opioids on our community. To prevent the settlement funds from being used for non-opioid expenditures, the agreement requires funds be spent on forward-looking strategies to provide care and recovery, supportive housing, expanded treatment, mental health services, children’s services and community-based services related to opioid abuse.
These funds alone are not sufficient to address the need. We can and should collaborate with regional partners and leverage other resources, such as Caring for Denver dollars approved by voters to address mental health. This will allow us to significantly improve the negative impacts we’ve seen throughout downtown and in other areas of our city, and to see lasting benefit to the individuals with addiction to opioids.
Deborah “Debbie” Ortega is an at-large member of Denver City Council. She can be reached at email@example.com or 720-337-7713.