Southwest Colorado’s regional opioid council is making incremental progress toward the distribution of opioid settlement money after Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s agreements with pharmaceutical companies.
Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado announced Thursday the confirmation of council members for the SouthWEST Opioid Response District (SWORD), which will govern the investment of settlement money the region expects to receive from the state. The group will now complete a two-year plan and a feasibility study as it looks to address substance abuse in the region.
“We understand that (the settlement funds) are not a cure all, they’re not going to solve every issue that we have here with regard to the gaps in treatment,” said Heather Otter, project manager for Region 9 and a facilitator for the council. “But we are looking to leverage these funds to make the biggest impact that we can based on this regional agreement.”
Shak Powers, county administrator for Montezuma County, will serve as chairman for the 15-member council, while Dolores County Commissioner Steve Garchar will act as vice chairman. La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton will serve as treasurer, and Andrea Phillips, town manager for Pagosa Springs, will act as secretary.
The other 11 representatives consist of officials from various branches of local governments in Southwest Colorado, including law enforcement, public health and social services.
The council also has six nonvoting advisory members, with room for eight additional seats, from local health care and social services organizations, the legal system and community members with experience with the opioid crisis.
SWORD’s voting members will ultimately determine how the region will spend approximately $3.1 million it will receive over 18 years to combat substance abuse, Powers said.
Local governments from Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties established SWORD after signing the Colorado Opioids Settlement Memorandum of Understanding led by Weiser.
In August 2021, Weiser agreed to a $26 billion multistate deal with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson to settle claims against the companies for their role in the opioid epidemic.
Colorado expects to receive about $400 million from the settlement. The state’s 19 “regions” will receive 60%, the state 10% and local governments 20%, according to a fact sheet released by Weiser’s office in August.
However, the money each government in the five-county region will receive from the settlement is so small that the council has been discussing pooling the money to have a greater impact on substance abuse in the region, though there has been no written agreement.
Powers said Montezuma County’s portion would come out to about $20,000 per year.
“Most entities agree that in order to get anything done with (the money) we are going to have to combine all our funds,” he said. “The portion that comes to Montezuma County we’re going to donate to the region.”
Funding will be finalized in early April as SWORD prepares a two-year plan for how the money will be spent, Otter said. The council must submit the plan to the state by the end of April before the pharmaceutical companies make their first payments to an administrator in April.
“That’s the next big step before any funds will be distributed from the state,” Powers said.
The group is also initiating a feasibility study that was recently approved for congressional funding, according to Otter and Powers. The study will identify the opioid treatment and prevention programs needed most in the region.
“The group is in agreement that a feasibility study will be (needed) in order to solidify what the gaps in our services are in the region so that we can utilize those funds most effectively,” Otter said.
In discussions, SWORD has identified gaps in transportation, sober living and inpatient treatment.
A dedicated inpatient treatment facility has been a point of focus and also contention for the group, Powers said. Some in the council have argued that there is not enough need and funding to support an inpatient facility in Southwest Colorado over the long term, while others have marked it as a priority.
“The feasibility study is going to be a way to resolve that and give us some direction,” Powers said.
While the opioid settlement money will address substance abuse, SWORD will also target behavioral health in Southwest Colorado. In doing so, the council aims to find lasting solutions to the worsening opioid epidemic.
“Colorado ranks at the very bottom of all states in our ability to treat the high prevalence of adults with behavioral health challenges (which) ties to substance misuse problems,” Otter said. “We need to acknowledge that and take that into account.”