The University of Kentucky will receive a grant of $87 million, aimed at reducing opioid-related deaths by nearly half over three years, according to information from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
It is the largest grant in the university’s history.
Researchers from UK’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, in partnership with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet will lead the study.
The study is part of the NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative, an effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid crisis, according to a release from UK.
The goal is to develop evidence-based solutions to the opioid crisis and offer new hope for individuals, families and communities affected by this devastating crisis. More broadly, the idea is to see if solutions in different communities across the state can be scaled up and replicated as part of a national approach to the challenge, according to information from UK.
“Kentuckians know the insidiousness of this disease better than most,” UK President Eli Capilouto said. “The opioid epidemic does not discriminate by zip code, race, income, or any other demographic characteristic. It is not a character or moral failing, but an illness. It’s unforgiving. It touches us all. We all know someone — a member of our family, a loved one, a lifelong friend or classmate — whose life has been damaged by this illness. Its victims are us. But there is hope. There is us. That is why we believe aggressive, ambitious change is possible. Indeed, it is essential. That is why we believe we can — and must — lead the way.”
Mason County is among the 16 “highly affected communities” across the commonwealth targeted for the study which hopes to reduced the drug-related deaths by 40 percent. Others include Fayette, Jessamine, Clark, Kenton, Campbell, Greenup, Carter, Boyd, Knox, Jefferson, Franklin, Boyle, Madison, Bourbon and Floyd counties.
Maysville Assistant Police Chief Jared Muse said his department welcomes the news.
“We would always welcome a study that would assist in reducing opioid-related deaths in the region,” Muse said.
Muse said are residents need to open their minds and find new methods for treating addiction and the people who battle it since “what we are doing obviously isn’t working.” The study could be the impetus for that, he said.
“People have to be brave,” in opening minds and advocating for change, he said.
The National Institutes of Health selected UK as one of four research sites in four states hard hit by the opioid crisis.
This ambitious study aims to reduce overdose deaths by 40 percent over three years in selected communities in Kentucky by testing a set of proven prevention and treatment interventions, such as distribution of naloxone to reverse overdose and linking individuals in the criminal justice system with treatment for opioid addiction. UK will receive approximately $87 million to support the multi-year study under a cooperative agreement supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.
The study is being carried out in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which provides support for many of the local prevention, treatment and recovery support services to be studied.
To qualify for the study communities had to meet a list of criteria which included having a detention center, a rate of at least 25 opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 population, a needle exchange program, and a provider which offers medication assisted therapy for opioid addiction.
A series of community forums currently underway in the five-county Buffalo Trace Area and a committee of health care professionals and law enforcement officials have identified a detox center as the greatest need the area has as it copes with the opioid crisis, Muse said.
“That’s what we are striving to do,” he said.
“The Trump Administration recognizes that the most important work to combat our country’s opioid crisis is happening in local communities, where governments, organizations, families, and individuals are coming together to expand access to prevention, treatment, and recovery services,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “The HEALing Communities Study is an exciting, unprecedented effort to support communities in using and expanding our scientific understanding of effective interventions. It is a major new step in local and national efforts that are beginning to turn the tide on this public health crisis.”
In addition to UK, grant awards were issued to Boston Medical Center, Boston; Columbia University, New York City; and Ohio State University, Columbus.
Sharon Walsh, Ph.D., director of UK’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, is the principal investigator of the Kentucky study and will lead a team of more than 200 researchers, staff and state and community partners involved in the project.
“The goal is to show meaningful change in the overdose death rate in a short period of time and to do so in a way that can reveal what evidence-based interventions are effective in the community,” Walsh said. “‘What will work? Is it distributing more naloxone? Is it educating people better about evidence-based treatment? Is it expanding access to treatment and decreasing barriers? For example, if we pay for someone to have transportation to get to their treatment program will that help them stay in treatment?’ We know that people face real barriers accessing treatment and staying in treatment. We would like to remove those barriers because we also know that being out of treatment is a risk for death.”
The study will track communities as they reduce the incidence of opioid use disorder, increase the number of individuals receiving medication-based treatment for opioid use disorder, increase treatment retention beyond six months, provide recovery support services and expand the distribution of naloxone, a medication to reverse opioid overdose.
Overall, these rural and metropolitan counties had 764 opioid overdose deaths in 2017 with two-thirds of them involving fentanyl. They also represent about 40 percent of the state’s overall population of more than 4 million people.