Colorado Has Made Headway With Opioids, But Grim Numbers Show More Is Needed

Listen Now
2min 21sec
Toby Talbot/AP Photo
OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.
Photo: OxyContin Bottle Opioids - AP
OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.

Colorado will need to do more than just cut opioid prescriptions to end its opioid epidemic. That’s according to a new analysis from the American Medical Association, the Colorado Medical Society and Manatt Health.

Colorado is one of four states the AMA decided to spotlight with a deep-dive look at what it’ll take to stop the nation’s opioid epidemic.

In 2013, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper launched a process to develop one of the first statewide comprehensive efforts in the country to address the issue. The efforts included better educating providers about the problem, providing an easier way for people to dispose of their unused opioids and mandating wider use of a prescription drug monitoring program. And in May 2018, Hickenlooper signed a bill to limit how many opioids doctors can prescribe.

“We’re definitely leading the country in my opinion,” said Dr. Jonathan Clapp, a pain specialist based in Greenwood Village.

Clapp, who works with a Colorado Medical Society prescription drug abuse committee, said the state has been “very thoughtful as far as not ignoring patients who really are in pain,” while at the same time trying to both keep patients safe and find opioid alternatives.

The report credits the state in several areas: Colorado adopted policies and funding to help more people get access to medication-assisted treatment. It pushed for insurers to cover addiction treatment and non-opioid alternatives for pain management. And, Clapp said, it expanded access to the overdose drug naloxone.

“This has made a difference,” Clapp said. “I saw a number, an estimate, that already the naloxone has saved thousands of lives in Colorado and I don’t think that’s an understatement.”

Despite all that, the grim toll of the epidemic continues. There’s been a 21 percent drop in opioid prescriptions since 2013 — yet the state’s overdose death rate rose over the last two years. More than a thousand Coloradans died from drug overdoses in 2017, a record.

The AMA report urges Colorado to expand access to medication-assisted treatment, especially in rural areas. That treatment includes the use of FDA-approved meds like methadone, naltrexone and buprenorphine, along with counseling.

Clapp said it starts with eliminating barriers to treatment.

“When someone comes in and wants to get medication-assisted treatment, they want off the opioids, they want to get better, there’s still many payers out there that will not cover their treatment.”