Health Politics

State and federal leaders say they’re working to address the growing addiction crisis in Kentucky and the U.S.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Joe Biden, met with Republican U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, state Republican Senate President Robert Stivers and others in Louisville Thursday to discuss the issue. 

Gupta said the current crisis is being fueled by the highly powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. A person dies every five minutes on average from substance use, he said. 

“We’re working hard to make sure that we can address the entire system, from the precursor shipments in China, the meth labs and fentanyl labs in Mexico, to the supply that’s made it into our communities,” he said of the Biden Administration. 

“We address that while making sure we’re allowing more treatment and making that more available, reducing the barriers to people in terms of regulations, policies, as well as the cost.”

That also means funding harm reduction – like syringe exchange programs, fentanyl test strips and naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, he said. 

Sen. McConnell said he was glad to be able to host Dr. Gupta in Kentucky and said the issue transcends party lines. 

“This horrendous addiction problem was here during the pandemic, got worse during the pandemic and obviously is still with us,” McConnell said, calling it an “ongoing fight.”

“No matter who’s in the White House, this challenge remains.”

Local health leaders have said that substance use has increased because of COVID-19, as many struggled with stress and crucial recovery resources were halted or modified in the early stages of the pandemic. 

In Kentucky, the Jefferson County Coroner’s Officer reported more than 500 overdose deaths for 2021, with close to 100 cases still pending at that time. While that’s lower than the 604 reported for 2020, it’s still well above the 300 to 400 range seen in each of the prior two years. 

A recent partnership between the state and Volunteers of America Mid-States is helping to bridge a gap in recovery care in rural Kentucky. 

The organization’s Freedom House programs help women with substance use dependency who are pregnant or have young children. In recent years, they’ve expanded to Manchester to serve rural communities there. 

Sen. Stivers said that since opening, they’ve been able to help with health care and rehabilitation needs, including helping nine women get into recovery and go on to have successful births. 

He said that’s cut the average stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for those babies from 18 or 19 days to five or six. 

“These nine children will have a totally different trajectory starting with their first day,” Stivers said. “This child is more developed, intellectually … its neural [synapses], its lung capacity … all things that are relative to good development.”


Aprile Rickert is WFPL's health reporter.