Fentanyl drives Colorado fatal overdoses to new highs

Colorado Springs legislators are backing a bill that aims to establish a substance use counseling center in the city.

If passed, House Bill 1158 would create the CARE Center within the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to provide substance use prevention and treatment services to the community, as well as to train substance use counselors and collect data to research the efficacy of substance use interventions.

“This bill is vital in the battle against drug addiction in our area,” said bill sponsor Rep. Shane Sandridge, R-Colorado Springs. “We must provide resources that educate and council our citizens when they fall to addiction and dependency.”

Substance use has increased statewide and nationally in recent years, but experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the trend. In 2020, 1,477 Coloradans died of drug overdoses — the state’s most annual overdose deaths ever and a 38% increase from 2019, according to the Colorado Health Institute.

Colorado’s rise in substance use deaths has been led by opioids, with the number of opioid overdoses increasing by 54% from 2019 to 2020. Fentanyl has become particularly deadly and widespread in the state, responsible for 68% of all opioid deaths in Colorado in 2020, the institute found.

Just last month, five people died in Commerce City in what is believed to be the largest single fentanyl overdose in the country. Only three weeks later, three others died in Cortez after supposedly ingesting fentanyl. 

“The opioid crisis has been growing for several years and the emergence of fentanyl has made this the most dangerous and deadly threat to public health,” said Rep. Marc Snyder, D-Colorado Springs, the bill’s other sponsor. “Establishing the CARE Center at UCCS will provide accessible substance use prevention and treatment services for our Pikes Peak community.”

Under the bill, the CARE Center would be up and running by December and cost around $146,000 to establish, in addition to around $133,000 annually to maintain.

Though the bill was introduced over a month ago, it has not yet reached committee for its first vote. Snyder said the bill sponsors are waiting for more details about hundreds of millions of dollars in behavioral health grants that were recently introduced to the legislature and could be a faster method to funding the CARE Center.

In other Colorado Springs news, a bill from Rep. Mary Bradfield, R-Colorado Springs, to increase the number of days a retired teacher can work was signed into law Thursday by Gov. Jared Polis.

House Bill 1057 temporarily waives current limitations that reduce retirement benefits if retired teachers work more than 110 days. These limitations will be lifted until July 1, 2025 for any school district experiencing a critical substitute teacher shortage.

“It is a win-win for school staffs and students,” Bradfield said. “This bill will be a great assistance to all Colorado schools by allowing experienced retired teachers be long term subs with no penalties from (the Public Employees' Retirement Association).”

This comes as Colorado faces a significant teacher shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 2020-21 school year, more than 200 teacher positions were unfilled and nearly 13% of teacher positions were filled through a shortage mechanism, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

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