Colorado OBH Fights Opioid Crisis With Medication-Assisted Treatment

Feb 11, 2019

The Colorado Office of Behavioral Health received a federal grant in April 2017 to address the state's growing opioid crisis. That year, 560 Coloradans died from opioid overdoses. KUNC's Stephanie Daniel spoke to director Robert Werthwein, director of the state agency, about their addiction, prevention and treatment efforts.

Interview Highlights

How bad is Colorado's opioid crisis compared to the rest of the country?

Robert Werthwein: I think it varies by the region, where you go in Colorado ... you have places like southern Colorado and southeast Colorado where the fatality rate from opioids is one of the highest in the nation. There's been a lot of effort particularly from the state as well as the Colorado Hospitals Association in addressing prescribing behaviors — that is something that can be applied statewide in making sure that, when folks need pain meds, we're keeping a close eye on the impact of providing those pain meds and not giving more than what's needed.

The Office of Behavioral Health created the State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis Grant Program two years ago. How's it going?

Werthwein: It's going really well. Most recently, (we launched) the OpiRescue Treatment locator — it's an app that folks can use and they can find a provider, a medication-assisted treatment provider, on a map.

Robert Werthwein is the director of the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health.
Credit Office of Behavioral Health

A couple other things that we've been working on is really increasing the number of providers that have medication-assisted treatment. It's a certification process that an advanced nurse practitioner or a physician, someone with a medical degree, can get certified and that they can do medication-assisted treatment.

So that really means addressing opioids from a medical standpoint, which it is ... Over 12,000 naloxone kits have been distributed. It's really the life-saving approach to folks who experience an overdose and it's been really effective in helping us save lives in Colorado.

Your office has since received another two-year federal grant. What do you hope to accomplish over the next two years?

Werthwein: By September 2020, we really want to increase the number of medication-assisted treatment. We plan to spend $5 million to achieve a goal of 1,100 additional people receiving medication-assisted treatment.

Also, one of the efforts that we're doing that we're excited about is mobile units. So, for rural Colorado, it's been really a challenge to get services to folks in those areas. We're going to create six mobile units that will have medication-assisted treatment.

We're going to continue our Lift the Label campaign that's really an anti-stigma campaign ... we really want to sort of help educatenfolks that this can happen to anyone and it does happen to many people of different life backgrounds.

Why is medication-assisted treatment important?

Werthwein: It's an effective way to treat addiction when it comes to opioids. With medication-assisted treatment, what we're doing is meeting the physiological needs of the person without the side effects that you get with opioids and helping people come off and slowly being able to safely come off their addiction to opioids. It's proven to work and it's been really effective, and that's why we have invested so much into it in Colorado.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of naloxone kits distributed by the Colorado OBH.