A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Forum on opioid abuse hears of need for more treatment services, community education


By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

After a day of learning and talking about opioid prevention, treatment and mobilization, people at a forum in Corbin agreed on three things: Access to substance abuse and mental health services remains a huge barrier in southeastern Kentucky; more community education is needed; and drug-prevention programs should form coalitions to better use their limited resources.

Substance abuse affects almost every family in Kentucky, and four Kentuckians die every day from a drug overdose. That was part of the opening message from Dr. Allen Brenzel, medical director of the state Department for Behavioral Health, Development and Intellectual Disabilities.

“This is, in my opinion, one of the most pressing health-care issues facing our commonwealth today,” Brenzel said. “If 1,000 people a year were dying from measles in the state of Kentucky, think about the public response that we would have. … We would be on red-alert, we would have a complete, public-health, massive intervention to solve that problem.”

Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley (Photo Provided)

Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley (Photo Provided)

Van Ingram, executive director at the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, said that next year’s drug overdose report, which will be released in a few weeks, will show the problem is getting worse.

About 125 people, most of them health-care providers, attended the “Cumberland River Forum on Opioid Use Disorders: A Time for Community Action” May 17 at the Corbin Technology Center. It was sponsored by The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, and Cumberland River Behavioral Health. Similar forums were held in Lexington May 16 and Louisville May 13.

John Tilley, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Justice and Public Safety, said he hoped the forum would “light a fire under this community” to talk to their neighbors and friends, community leaders and legislators about the value of treatment over incarceration for substance abuse and mental health issues.

Tilley, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee when he was a state representative from Hopkinsville, acknowledged that some abusers should be in prison, but said society must distinguish between “who we are mad at and who we are afraid of. … I promise you the way to get out of this mess is not to over-criminalize addiction and mental illness.”

Tilley said “The solution is right before our eyes,” using for treatment some of the billions of dollars now used to incarcerate drug users.

Tim Feeley, deputy secretary for the CHFS and a former legislator from Oldham County, agreed: “We are not going to incarcerate our way out of this.” He said the state needs more treatment programs and said the cabinet was fully committed to addressing the state’s addiction problems to the best of its abilities.

Kentucky has moved away from treating mental health and substance abuse issues criminally, said Dr. William Hacker, chair of Shaping Our Appalachian Region’s Health and Wellness Advisory Committee and former state health commissioner. He said other successful anti-drug efforts include grassroots advocacy groups, the online prescription-drug tracking program, needle-exchange programs, a move toward medication assisted treatments for opioid addiction, and the SMARTS initiative, which provides addiction care for pregnant and parenting women for up to two years.

Hacker also mentioned Operation UNITE, a Kentucky non-profit created by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers that leads education, treatment and law enforcement initiatives in 32 counties in Southern and Eastern Kentucky. UNITE has held a national drug abuse conferences for the past five years, with this year’s summit in Atlanta including President Barack Obama. The acronym stands for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education.

A former pediatrician in Corbin, Hacker also noted that SOAR recently held a Substance Abuse Roundtable to discuss research and emerging opportunities associated with substance abuse and intravenous drug use in Appalachian Kentucky. He said SOAR works to create a network across the region to share best practices and money opportunities and to create community level empowerment.

“Substance abuse is not a failure of moral character, it is a disease,” Hacker said. “Don’t give up. Never give up.”

At the end of the meeting, the attendees broke into groups that represented schools, community leaders, health-care professionals, parents and the faith community to discuss what actions they could take to address opioid abuse in their communities.

Most groups reported that lack of access to substance abuse and mental health treatment is a barrier in their communities. And while it was noted that some communities offer more services than others, several groups said they did not have enough counselors to support medication-assisted therapies or enough doctors willing to prescribe it. Lack of transportation was also mentioned as a barrier toward getting treatment in several groups.

Also, most groups said community members often aren’t aware of the resources, so more community education is needed. They listed schools, churches and county Extension offices as possible sources of education, and noted that a community resource website would be helpful. They also said parents would benefit from a class to learn how to talk to their children about drugs.

The groups agreed that all sectors of the community were needed to combat substance abuse and suggested that drug prevention programs in each community should form coalitions to better use resources and information.

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.


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