By Shaun Boyd

DENVER (CBS4)– A state lawmaker has opened up about the most private and painful part of her life as she fights for laws aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic.

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Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat representing Lakewood, was just six years old when her mom became addicted to prescription painkillers and later heroin.

Rep. Brittany Pettersen (credit: CBS)

Nearly three decades later, Pettersen is talking about it publicly for the first time.

“Through my own experience, I’ve seen the gaps and the need for training for pharmacists to pharmaceutical companies to doctors to Medicaid treatment. I’ve seen every level how we’ve failed and we have to come together to solve this problem,” said Pettersen.

Pettersen with her mother (credit: Brittany Pettersen)

Pettersen’s mom – like so many others, she says – was overprescribed opioids making addiction all too easy. The hard part was finding treatment. Her mom is covered by Medicaid and Colorado doesn’t allow state Medicaid dollars to be used for inpatient substance abuse treatment.

“I didn’t know this was the case until my mom was begging for help. She was going in and out of critical condition in ICU. In the last 14 months, my mom has been in critical condition nine times. And, I watched these thousands of dollars a day in the hospital and these bills skyrocketing and they have to release her without any support to actually move towards recovery.”

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(credit: CBS)

Yet, Pettersen knew the odds of passing a bill expanding Medicaid coverage would be slim in the Republican-controlled Senate. She introduced legislation anyway. On the last day of the session, it passed.

“In split chambers I didn’t think that this was going to happen,” Pettersen said through tears, “but people came together and saw that there was something wrong. My mom needed help and there wasn’t help there. This is the first step in actually solving this problem. It might not be soon enough to help my mom but hopefully it’ll be there to help others.”

CBS4 Political Specialist Shaun Boyd interviews Pettersen (credit: CBS)

In addition to the Medicaid reimbursement bill – which requires a study of the costs and benefits first – Pettersen was also able to boost spending on drug abuse treatment, pass legislation creating an opioid research center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and develop a task force on opioid addiction.

(credit: CBS)

“So that the leaders who are on the ground across Colorado doing this work are also engaging with the legislature. There’s a huge gap in people’s understanding of what’s happening,” said Pettersen.

She also carried a bill allowing pharmacists to partially fill opioid prescriptions, but that failed.

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Shaun Boyd is CBS4’s political specialist. She’s a veteran reporter with more than 25 years of experience. Follow her on Twitter @cbs4shaun.