How Eagle County will spend its share of the first opioid settlement funds

The county will be supporting regional education, prevention efforts with Lake, Summit, Pitkin and Garfield counties

Ali Longwell
Vail Daily
Across Colorado, $18 million is being distributed from the first round of settlement money from national opioid lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors.
Toby Talbot, File/AP Photo

EAGLE COUNTY — As the opioid crisis continues to deepen across Colorado, local municipalities and counties are set to receive the first round of opioid settlement money to fight the epidemic.

Across the state, $18 million is being distributed from settlements with Johnson & Johnson as well as from three major drug distributors — Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen — as well as from McKinsey & Co., according to Lawrence Pacheco, the attorney general’s director of communications.

“The release of these funds is an important step forward in our efforts to address the opioid crisis,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, the chair of the Colorado Opioid Abatement Council, in a September press release announcing the fund release. “This crisis continues to take a toll on Coloradans. We will continue working with our regional opioid abatement councils and local governments as they work together toward a better future for all Coloradans.”

This council is tasked with approving requests for funds from Colorado governments.

This means different things for the Eagle County municipalities that also signed on to get funds — which includes the town of Avon, Eagle, Gypsum, Minturn, Red Cliff and Vail as well as Eagle County. While local governments could choose to receive their funding separately, they could also choose to direct their funds to regional efforts. Across the state, the council will make distributions to 19 regions and two federally recognized Colorado tribes.

Eagle County was part of Region 5, which also includes Lake, Summit, Pitkin and Garfield counties. Within the county, Avon, Eagle, Gypsum, Minturn and Red Cliff all contributed their portion of funds to the regional effort. Their portions were $3,691.43, $1,511.43, $841.51, $374.34 and $46.10, respectively.

The town of Vail is set to receive $11,332.33 in this first round, however, according to Ryan Kenney, a commander with the Vail Police Department, the town is “thinking pooling our resources will make more of an impact on the Western Slope,” but the decision is not yet finalized.

Eagle County itself is set to receive $29,299.60 directly from this round of payments.

According to Heath Harmon, the director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment, the county elected to hold onto these funds because it “allows us a little more flexibility to target needs that are more specific to communities of our county.”

“Region 5 is a large and diverse mix of counties. The work of the Regional Steering Committee is to ensure action plans are implemented with consistency across each of the counties. The resources currently available and the needs of each county are different and thus our regional work is broader in scope,” Harmon added.

However, no specific plans for these funds in the county yet exist.

For Region 5, the regional steering committee — made up of government, health care, behavioral health and law enforcement representatives from the five counties — requested $500,000 in funding from the first round of funding. However, with the addition of funds contributed by local municipalities, this number is expected to be around $680,000 in the first year and around $280,000 in the second.

Pacheco said that many regions will receive their funds by the end of October. The next annual payments by Johnson & Johnson as well as the distributors will come in July 2023, he added.

This is just the first round being released, with the remaining funds coming over the course of the next 18 years as settlements from other national lawsuits continue to roll in.

Over the next 18 years, Eagle County is expected to receive around $260,000 from these settlements; with Region 5 anticipated to receive around $4.9 million in the same time frame.

Narcan is one of the primary harm reduction efforts in the fight against the opioid epidemic. Region 5 has determined that its first batch of funds from national opioid settlements will go toward harm reduction efforts as well as prevention and education.
Matt Rourke/AP File

A regional effort

In order for these regions to receive funds, they were required to form steering committees to build, initially, a two-year action plan for the first round of monies.

The Region 5 group was co-chaired by Jarid Rollins, the director of behavioral health services for MidValley Family Practice in Basalt, and Tamara Pogue, a Summit County commissioner. From Eagle County, while other representatives also participated, the consistent participants, according to Harmon were himself, Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney, and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health’s Kala Bettis.

This regional effort kicked off in January, Harmon said, with representatives from each county working with a facilitator to develop the plan, which includes goals, objectives and desired outcomes as well as the specific ways the funds will be spent.

“We were really lucky in our region that we had great participation from all of the counties that are in this region and a lot of varied experience with opioid prevention work. We certainly had law enforcement represented, we had providers represented, we had folks with lived experience represented, it was a pretty diverse group,” Pogue said.

With this diversity, Harmon added that “pulling together the number of people from all five counties, it was amazing how quickly we were able to find consensus on how we wanted to approach these first two years.”

While diverse, Bettis said the group was brought together by a shared love for the mountain communities on the Western Slope.

“We continue to work closely to designate funds that improve our region as a whole. Considering our transient populations, our community members can have connections in many parts of our region,” she said. “It has benefitted each of us to gather in a space where we listen and learn from one another, leaning into counties that have either started efforts or need assistance in expanding work being done based on identifying gaps.”

How the regional funds will be spent

There are five “buckets” in which the money from the settlement can be used: prevention and education, treatment, recovery, harm reduction, and criminal justice.

“We’re putting a heavier focus of spending on prevention efforts,” Harmon said. “So about 67% of the funds will be allocated on prevention efforts and then the remaining 33% of funds that we implement, at least in those first few years, are going to be then on harm reduction.”

Specifically, according to the two-year plan, $300,000 will be spent on an anti-stigma and education campaign, $100,000 will be used to create a regional substance use disorder data dashboard — both of which fall under prevention and education — and $100,000 will be spent on harm reduction services and supports.

This focus, Harmon said, should yield the “best return on investment” in tackling the opioid crisis.

“We always want to find a way to prevent the crisis from occurring in the future,” he said. “Realistically, to the degree that we can implement strong prevention and health promotion efforts, it decreases the likelihood that people will use or misuse substances.”

Bettis added that both harm reduction and prevention allow for needs to be reported from the community, guiding “appropriate action through problem identification and strategic delivery of community-based referral.”

“Prevention work allows us to identify risk and protective factors, which provide a baseline of what works well, and how we can bolster support systems. Harm Reduction improves the physical and mental well-being of people by preventing overdose and curbing infectious disease transmission,” Bettis said. “Examples of this are awareness campaigns to reduce stigma, needle exchange programs, psychoeducation to patients and their families, and prevention curriculum in our schools to educate our youth about the danger of use through evidence-based practice.”

This concentrated focus on prevention, education and harm reduction for the first batch of funds also has to do with the fact that the region contains a “diverse makeup of counties,” in both population and access to behavioral health services in each county, Harmon said.

According to Pogue, both Summit and Eagle counties both have their own funding for behavioral health.

“When you look at some of the other funding streams that are out there, it made sense to the group to focus on anti-stigma and education, primarily,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean in the future, that we wouldn’t want to prioritize treatment or recovery, for example.”

With this two-year plan, the region set five main goals with its implementation:

  • Reduce the number of substance-use-related deaths;
  • Increase the number of people seeking help for substance use disorders;
  • Increase community awareness of substance use risks, understanding the local needs and gaps, and where to find resources and support;
  • Increase the availability of and knowledge surrounding harm reduction services; and
  • Increase potential for winning grants and other funding.

In the short-term, to deliver on these goals, the region will soon release requests for proposals for local organizations and vendors in each of the three funding areas (the data dashboard, anti-stigma campaign and increase in harm reduction resources). According to Pogue, these will be up on Eagle County’s website (as the county serves as the region’s fiscal agent) toward the end of the year.

Long-term plans

However, with funds to be delivered over the next 18 years, this work is only just beginning.

McQueeney said that the regional group is well set up in this regard.

“The committee took the time to set up the system for governance. We have guidelines for who votes and who is on the committee as well as how programs are selected and funds are dispersed so I do not anticipate any issues with continuing along with the format we have established as additional funds are received,” she said. “I believe that the success of the programs those funds are used for will also inform our work moving forward. It’s good to fund areas that have a proven track record.”

As no funds in the first batch were put toward treatment, recovery and criminal justice, there is a good chance investments will be made in these areas in the future. However, the group also identified multiple other priorities.

Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, this long-term plan also includes the discussion of housing.

“This region is facing a desperate housing crisis,” the plan reads. “Housing instability makes accessing healthcare more difficult and disproportionately impacts certain populations, including those with justice involvement who face discrimination and limited eligibility from landlords … As the housing crisis grows, so does the population of people in our region currently experiencing homelessness.”

The plan continues that this crisis goes beyond individuals and families in the region.

“Recovery residences are an enormous need for the region, yet even when funding is available as is the case in much of Region 5 through HRSA RCORP Grants and Oxford Houses, it is nearly impossible to locate an affordable physical space for the residence. Furthermore, the housing crisis is compounding the already desolate behavioral health provider shortage, as local providers are having to relocate to more affordable living areas,” it says.

McQueeney reiterated this saying that the region’s future priorities will “likely include housing for behavioral health providers and those in recovery.”

“In order to attract behavioral health providers to our area we need to address the housing barrier so it makes sense to focus some funds in that area,” she said, adding that another priority will need to be “programs focused on youth substance use prevention.”

Regardless, Harmon said the hope is that the efforts “ensure that there is a standard of quality across all counties and jurisdictions within that region.”

Similarly, Bettis said her hope is that all future investments, whatever they are, help “more recovery treatment centers feel they can thrive in our region.”

“Not having to travel for services promotes stabilization and commitment to treatment if in a familiar and safe environment,” she said. “Goals of greater clinical programming such as intensive outpatient and residential options create promising wraparound approaches that settlement dollars can support.”

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