A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Dorsey Ridley: Opioid crisis affecting every aspect of life in Kentucky… and more needs to be done

When the clock strikes midnight tonight, four more Kentuckians will have died of a drug overdose.
That’s how the veteran law enforcement official tasked with coordinating the state’s response to the heroin epidemic describes the seriousness of the situation. While the headlines about the crisis have focused on Northern Kentucky, Appalachia and the big cities, don’t be fooled into thinking this scourge isn’t affecting every aspect of life in the Bluegrass.
It cuts across all demographics. It touches everyone. It doesn’t matter where you live. Addiction doesn’t care how smart you are, where you went to school or how much money you make.

It is further straining Kentucky’s already stretched medical, law enforcement and addiction treatment systems. We must start looking at this as a public health and workforce development issue.
One thousand four hundred and four Kentuckians died of a drug overdose last year. Since 2012, over 80 West Kentuckians have died from drug overdose across the 4th Senatorial district, according to the 2016 Overdose Fatality Report published by the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

This district includes Caldwell, Crittenden, Henderson, Livingston, Union, and Webster Counties. Law enforcement officials say the deaths are being driven by the introduction of the synthetic opiate fentanyl into the heroin supply.
If the deaths aren’t heartbreaking enough, hospitals across Kentucky are struggling to treat pregnant women who suffer from addiction. The average cost of treating an infant born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, impaired by drugs the mother took, is about $100,000.
At the beginning of 2014, Kentucky spent about $56 million in Medicaid money on behavioral health and substance abuse treatment. By the end of 2016, Kentucky was spending about $117 million in Medicaid money on those treatments.
All of the intravenous drug use has made 54 Kentucky counties highly vulnerable to an HIV outbreak like the one that hit Austin, Ind. While none of these counties are in this region, any outbreak would further strain the state’s entire public health system.

Kentucky also has some of the highest rates of hepatitis C in the nation for several years. This is foretelling because most of these new hepatitis C infections are from people who inject drugs and share needles. Hepatitis C rates like those in Kentucky are seen as a canary in the coal mine for an HIV outbreak.
Not to sound like a broken record, but trying to lock up every addict and throw away the key doesn’t work.

From 1985 to 2015, the crime rate in Kentucky fell 19 percent and the violent crime rate declined 28 percent. Yet this year, for the first time in our history, Kentucky topped 24,000 in our prisons and is 1,573 over its projected level. This level of incarceration comes at great expense. The 2017 Kentucky corrections budget was $572.6 million but fell $42.7 million short.

In the last six fiscal years, corrections required $139.8 million more than budgeted.
All the while, there aren’t enough treatment beds for addicts who are actively seeking help.
The more I study opioid addiction the more evidence it has become a workforce development issue too. The state’s top companies are having trouble hiring workers who can pass a drug test.
The sheer dimensions of the opioid-addiction epidemic have forced policymakers to change long-held ideas regarding addiction. In 2015, the Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Bill 192. It gave money to the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to add medication-assisted treatment to its incarceration programs.
On the public health side, SB 192 allowed for needle exchanges. There are about 30 exchanges opened with more approved but not yet operational. SB 192 also allowed pharmacists who receive special certification to dispense naloxone, a drug designed to reserve an opioid overdose, to people without a prescription.
In the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between police and drug dealers, House Bill 333 from this year also made it a felony to illegally sell or distribute any amount of fentanyl, carfentanil and related drugs.
Beyond legislation, Kentucky was recently awarded a $10.5 million federal grant to help. The money will be spent on programs for opioid overdose victims, pregnant and parenting women, individuals re-entering society upon release from criminal justice settings and adolescents and young adults at risk of addiction.
Yet more needs to be done. The opioid-abuse crisis has been studied by the General Assembly extensively this summer and I expect new legislation to address the issue will be filed when we return to Frankfort.

I encourage you to stay in touch to share your input on this and other issues facing our Commonwealth. You may leave me a message by calling the toll-free Legislative Message Line at 800-372-7181. You can also e-mail me directly at Dorsey.Ridley@LRC.KY.GOV.

Dorsey Ridley is the Senate Minority Caucus Chair representing District 4, including Caldwell, Crittenden, Henderson, Livingston, Union and Webster counties.


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