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Mercy-led planning group aims to reduce substance abuse in La Plata County

Consortium brings community organizations together to limit opioid, alcohol use
With a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Southwestern Colorado Opioid Overdose Planning (SCOOP) Consortium brings together local agencies, nonprofits, medical providers and community members to plan and enact solutions to substance abuse in La Plata County. The group has a few months remaining on the grant and is considering applying to another that would bring in $1 million to spur further action. (Courtesy of the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health)

A team led by Mercy Regional Medical Center aims to reduce opioid and alcohol substance abuse in Southwest Colorado with a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration.

The Southwestern Colorado Opioid Overdose Planning (SCOOP) Consortium brings local agencies, nonprofits, medical providers and community members together to plan and enact solutions to opioid and substance abuse in La Plata County, filling gaps in services that remain limited in rural Colorado.

“We knew there wasn’t this organized, collective effort looking at substance use disorders,” said Elsa Inman, project director and a community health contractor with Mercy. “... We didn’t have anything that was really studying the substance use issue in La Plata County and working together to figure out ways in which to address these issues.”

The coalition is working on three strategies to reduce substance use in La Plata County:

  • The group is forming an advisory group for substance use prevention, treatment and recovery support services in the county.
  • It is working to develop an education and communications campaign to reduce stigma and normalize community support for substance abuse support services.
  • The group’s final goal is to improve access to prevention, treatment and recovery services for those who are at risk, who are actively using substances or who are in recovery.

The coalition’s three working groups, one to address each strategy, meet monthly to work toward these short-term goals while also developing enduring plans to address substance abuse.

“We wanted to do some intentional planning around this issue,” Inman said.

In July 2017, Mercy received a grant from a private foundation to examine those who were frequently using the emergency department. Mercy placed patients in cohorts and offered them additional services, such as primary and specialty care and connected them with other community resources.

“What we started to see was a pretty significant decrease in their ER utilization resulting in quite a bit of cost savings to not just the hospital, but the community,” Inman said.

Inman went back to try to understand why the patients were visiting the emergency department so often.

“The No. 1 reason was alcohol use, and the second reason they were coming in more often than other patients was behavioral health issues,” she said. “It was nothing new to the executive team at Mercy. They knew that substance use was a big issue.”

To begin tackling substance abuse in La Plata County, Mercy applied to a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration. But instead of only focusing on money to address opioids, it also included alcohol.

“We decided to add alcohol use because we knew that that’s still the No. 1 drug of choice in not only Colorado, but in La Plata County,” Inman said.

In September 2020, Mercy received $200,000 to create the task force and start the planning process.

Inman initially convened 15 organizations across the county to work together, but community involvement has multiplied.

“It’s grown to close to 50 individuals all representing different organizations and La Plata County, including individuals with lived experience (and) family members that have been directly affected by opioids,” Inman said.

Earlier this year, the coalition conducted a community needs assessment and identified the Native American and LGBTQ+ communities as two priority populations for the project.

According to Mercy emergency room data, Indigenous Americans accounted for 29% of alcohol and drug-related abuse while making up only 7.7% of the general population.

Mercy did not have similar statistics for the LGBTQ+ community, but a 2015 study cited by the assessment found that 23% of those who are transgender avoided seeking care for fear of mistreatment.

In La Plata County, neither the Indigenous nor the LGBTQ+ communities have treatment or recovery options designed specifically for them.

“We know that there are disparities within those communities,” Inman said. “We know that resources are rather limited (and) there’s a lot of stigma associated with substance use within those two priority populations. So we wanted to make sure that we were placing some emphasis on those two groups while we were developing our strategic action plan.”

The consortium’s grant ends in February 2022. With Mercy in the lead, SCOOP is considering applying for another grant worth up to $1 million that would allow the group to put much of its planning into action.

The group would focus this work on filling the gaps in the county’s substance abuse efforts.

“In rural communities, what we have to be concerned about are the ongoing challenges with the lack of resources,” Inman said. “Access to services will continue to be a focus of SCOOP as we move from planning to implementation.”

A second grant would be another step in the ongoing battle to tackle opioid and substance use disorders in La Plata County.

“As long as you have these issues in your community, you should be working to address them no matter how long that is,” Inman said. “There needs to be a group that is intentionally focusing on it and addressing it.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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