Health

The federal government is giving the University of Kentucky $87 million to target the opioid epidemic in the state, officials announced Thursday.

The money will be used over four years with the goal of reducing opioid overdoses through evidence-based treatment, the wider distribution of clean syringes, fentanyl test strips and services like transport to treatment that aren’t currently covered by insurance plans.

Sharon Walsh, director of UK’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, said the end goal is to find out if a wider effort to help people with opioid addiction is cheaper than drug-related jail sentences and repeated emergency room visits.

“One of the aims is to show how it can be sustainable, so we can demonstrate what the cost savings are,” Walsh said.

The money comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and it’s part of a larger project that will fund similar research led by institutions in Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.

Walsh said that while many Kentuckians struggling with opioid addiction have insurance such as Medicaid, insurance doesn’t always cover everything that might make recovery possible. That could include transportation to daily treatment or connecting a person who is in the emergency room because of an overdose with immediate treatment. In addition, Walsh said many addiction treatment providers don’t accept insurance because of the paperwork involved for every patient.

“It’s still quite costly, and treatment programs will only accept cash — it can be a lot of paperwork for an individual provider,” Walsh said. “We want to demonstrate the most effective insurance policy. People fall through the gaps.”

The University of Kentucky will focus its programs on people living in 16 counties, including Jefferson County. The goal is to reduce opioid overdose deaths by 40 percent in four years, when the funding will run out. HHS Secretary Alex Azar said UK’s project will also involve the probation and parole, and jail systems in these counties.

“How do we bring together our court system, our health care providers, our education system, our employers, our housing system, to work together in a very coordinated way to build a package around the individual, so that we don’t treat opioid treatment and recovery as a 28-day one-and-done thing?”  Azar said.

Azar said at the end of the four years, data collected from the various federally-funded projects in states will be collected and analyzed.

“As we have findings about what works and what doesn’t work, we’ll be engaged in rapid dissemination to the rest of the country, so other states and communities can rapidly adopt these interventions,” Azar said.

Deaths from opioids in Kentucky are still increasing. About 22 percent of overdose deaths in 2017 showed heroin in toxicology or coroner reports; that’s down from 34 percent in 2016. However, 52 percent of deaths involved the use of fentanyl, up from 47 percent in 2016. Walsh said it’s often the case that fentanyl, a very strong opioid, is lacing other drugs and users don’t know it.

Walsh also said the project will likely help people who also use drugs other than opioids.

“Sometimes if you can help them get better for one substance, they’ll be helped with another substance they’re using,” Walsh said.

The project is a partnership with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

Kentuckians struggling with a substance use disorder can call 1-833-8KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357) a state-run toll-free helpline that connects people with treatment options.

 

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.