STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Longtime Steamboat Springs resident Melinda McDowell will be one among many recovering addicts heading to the state Capitol in Denver on Friday to testify in support of a bill that would expand a medication-assisted treatment program.
SB 19-001 unanimously passed the state Senate last week and now heads to the House of Representatives. It seeks to expand a pilot program currently offered in Routt and Pueblo counties that uses medication and specialized counseling to help addicts on their path to recovery.
This comes amid a nationwide opioid crisis that claims 130 lives every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorado is not immune to the epidemic. The state’s department of human services recorded 558 opioid overdose deaths in 2017 involving both prescription pills and illegal heroin.
If signed into law, the bill would expand the program to 10 other counties in the state and provide $5 million in funding over the next two years.
The initial pilot program, passed in 2017, has been influential in helping those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction overcome their withdrawal symptoms.
Routt County, whose rate of drug overdoses increased six-fold from 2014 to 2016, currently has one treatment center under that pilot program, according to Sen. Leroy Garcia, the bill’s sponsor.
Road to Recovery in Steamboat has treated more than 70 people since its executive director, Nancy Beste, founded it last year using funds from the program. She is currently the sole person at the clinic who is licensed to order and prescribe medications, such as Vivitrol and Naltrexone, which help to treat withdrawal symptoms.
Beste said 90 percent of the patients who have enrolled have continued treatment, a success rate far above other recovery options.
Melinda McDowell, one of Beste’s first patients, celebrated 10 months of sobriety Thursday, a day before testifying in front of lawmakers. For decades, she has suffered from addiction to various drugs, most recently meth.
She said she has tried to kick her addiction dozens of times, but a traumatic incident or the debilitating withdrawal symptoms — depression, aches and intense cravings, among others — would bring her right back to using.
“I told my husband and my kids that this would be the last time, but it never was,” she said.
McDowell described her and other addicts’ attempts to seek help. She said the only local options were support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
“If we wanted better help, we had to go three hours in either direction,” she said.
Last May, about a month after Road to Recovery opened its doors, McDowell received her first dose of Naltrexone from Beste. She said the results were immediate.
Days passed without cravings or the usual flu-like symptoms.
“I saw hope for the first time,” she said.
Weeks went by, then months. Through it all, she stayed clean.
Like McDowell, Sen. Garcia has seen a lack of addiction treatment in rural areas like Routt County.
His goal with the bill is to expand medication-assisted treatment programs to other rural areas that do not offer access to addiction treatment beyond weekly help groups. He and other legislators identified 10 underserved counties in Southern Colorado that would most benefit from medication-assisted treatment programs and addiction therapy.
“These counties have various resources, but they didn’t have mental health services,” he said.
Beste said increased funding from the bill is necessary to meet Routt County’s needs. Every week, three to four new patients come to her seeking treatment.
“I have far more people here now than I have time to see them,” she said.
If the bill passed, she could hire another certified medication provider, which would allow her to take in more patients.
As part of the pilot program, Road to Recovery also offers several weekly therapy groups. McDowell goes to multiple ones, including a women-only group. Having a community of fellow patients who all want to recover encourages them to do so.
“The connection we have with each other is amazing,” McDowell said.
After almost a year of sobriety, McDowell is trying to rebuild her life that drugs nearly destroyed. She is in the process of going back to school to become a certified addiction counselor and aspires to help others like herself.
She will present her story in a speech at the state Capitol on Friday alongside fellow Steamboat resident and recovering opioid addict Ashley McAuliffe.
While McDowell still has a long road to recovery, she is hopeful for the future.
“I love myself again,” she said. “I love life again. I have hope again.”