Tipton discusses opioid epidemic with communities across Colorado

Patrick Kelly
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, listens to constituents at a community roundtable on opioid abuse in Craig. Tipton has been visiting communities in the 3rd Congressional District to get local input on the issue and work toward solutions.
Patrick Kelly

As lawmakers in Washington, D.C. tackle the nation’s growing problem with prescription drug abuse, one congressman has brought the discussion home to Colorado.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, is looking to the communities he represents in an ongoing effort to understand prescription opioid and heroin abuse.

On Thursday, Tipton was in Craig for the last of four roundtable meetings held across the 3rd Congressional District to discuss the issue.

“I’m a big believer that nobody knows our communities better than we do,” Tipton said.

In 2015, Colorado reported 329 deaths from prescription opiate overdoses and 160 from heroin, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The number of opiate-related deaths per year reached triple digits for the first time in 2001 and has continued to climb steadily, hitting 227 in 2010 and peaking at 338 in 2014.

Between 2012 and 2014, Moffat County saw five opiate-related deaths, while Routt and Garfield counties had six each.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines opioids as drugs that “reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain and affect those brain areas controlling emotion, which diminishes the effects of a painful stimulus.”

Medicines in this category include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and codeine.

Tipton, a member of the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic, recently voted in favor of 18 bills addressing the growing prescription opiate problem.

The legislation was drafted by House Republicans but later received bipartisan support, Tipton said. The bills passed the House and are now in the U.S. Senate.

“This will be a good first step in addressing a growing problem that we’re seeing across our state and country,” Tipton said of the legislation.

Moving forward, Tipton is reaching out to constituents in an effort to understand specific community issues and work on potential solutions.

Present for the discussion in Craig were members of law enforcement, health care providers, local elected officials and other community members.

Concerns ranged from the availability of prescription opiates to the lack of transitional housing for recovering addicts.

Beka Warren, chief quality officer for The Memorial Hospital in Craig and deputy coroner, passed around a photo of pills recovered from a residence in which a suicide had occurred.

In the photo, a freezer-sized Ziploc bag swelled with a colorful array of hundreds of pills, about a third of them narcotics.

“You have no idea how many pills are sitting with some people in their homes,” Warren said.

Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta mentioned a recent bust in which two Craig men were caught with an alleged 48 grams of heroin, as well as a bottle of oxycodone pills.

One of the men involved had been prescribed 90 oxycodone pills the day prior to his arrest. When the police found the bottle, it was missing eight pills but contained $100.

“There’s not enough regulation on doctors and how many they can give at one time,” Vanatta said.

In May, a former Craig doctor was punished for overprescribing narcotic painkillers. Joel Miller was sentenced to five years in federal prison but, despite being convicted by a jury, escaped being held accountable for the death of one of his patients due to a faulty indictment, according to court documents.

Craig Thornhill, program director for Mind Springs Health in Craig, said the lack of a detox facility and transitional housing in Northwest Colorado is a major hindrance for individuals who hope to get clean.

“We do not have a good middle ground, nor do we have a good exit system in the rural areas to help with sober living,” he said.

With all the components involved and limited resources available, Tipton said the only way to move forward — and the reason he hosted the roundtable — is to discuss the issue as a community and work together toward solutions.

“It’s going to have to be a team sport in terms of us coming together to be able to address the growing problem,” he said.

Tipton also hosted roundtable discussions in Alamosa, Pueblo and Grand Junction.

Contact Patrick Kelly at 970-875-1795 or or follow him on Twitter @M_PKelly.

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