Politics

Four Kentuckians die of drug overdoses every day, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy. Most of those deaths are due to opioids, chief among them fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug that has properties similar to heroin.

During a daylong update Wednesday on the state of Kentucky’s opioid epidemic, lawmakers heard from doctors, counselors and those in recovery about efforts to combat drug addiction.

Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said any solution will take a long time to go into effect.

“Everyone who has an opioid use disorder when the governor signs a bill still has it,” Ingram said. “And those people are still out seeking to prevent that withdrawal and to feed that addiction.”

At least 1,404 Kentuckians died of drug overdoses in 2016 — nearly half of them involving fentanyl. The trend has continued into 2017, with fentanyl being present in 53 percent of deaths in the first half of the year.

Ingram said that Kentucky’s public resources have been fatigued by the opioid crisis.

“But we’ve got to keep our eye on the prize. People do get better, people do recover. Although sometimes for those folks on the front lines it doesn’t seem that way when they’ve ‘narcan-ed’ the same person five times in a week,” Ingram said of the overdose-reversing drug.

“It really seems hopeless.”

Several experts encouraged the expansion of medically assisted therapy — recovery programs that wean people from opioids by using drugs like Vivitrol, Suboxone or methadone.

Dr. Allen Brenzel, medical director of the Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health, said the programs are misunderstood as “substituting one addiction for another.”

“If this is something that the individual requires to lead a healthy lifestyle, to work, to have insurance, to raise their kids, then we have to end this stigma that somehow if you’re not off your medication that you’re not in recovery,” Brenzel said.

Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said drug addiction is affecting the state’s businesses and workforce.

“Many people actively looking for work cannot pass a drug test required for employment and many of those who do have jobs are exiting the workforce due to untreated or under-treated addictions,” Adkisson said.

Kentucky saw a surge in the number of people getting substance abuse treatment through Medicaid between 2014 and 2016.

About 1.4 million Kentuckians — more than 25 percent of the state’s population — have health coverage through Medicaid.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.