Lawmakers told opioid crisis ‘a public health catastrophe’

Published 10:47 am Thursday, September 21, 2017

FRANKFORT (AP) — Kentucky’s opioid addiction problem has become “a public health catastrophe,” state lawmakers were told Wednesday as they received grim updates about the heroin and prescription pill abuse engulfing many communities.

The joint House-Senate Health and Welfare Committee devoted a daylong hearing to the subject and the news wasn’t good, The Courier-Journal reported.

“When the clock strikes midnight tonight, four Kentuckians will have died of a drug overdose,” said Van Ingram, executive director of the state office of drug control policy. “When the clock strikes midnight tonight, 140 Americans will have died from a drug overdose.

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“These deaths are preventable, and they don’t have to happen,” he added.

Jennifer Hancock, president of the regional Volunteers of America chapter in Louisville, which provides addiction services, called Kentucky’s opioid problem “a public health catastrophe.”

Drugs including heroin and increasingly, fentanyl — a powerful narcotic often mixed with heroin that can be lethal in low doses — continue to ravage the state to the point where some emergency responders are feeling “opioid fatigue” from reviving overdose victims, some repeatedly, Ingram said.

“It took over 2 1/2 decades to get into this epidemic and sadly, I think it’s going to take a lot more time to get out of it,” Ingram said.

Abuse of such drugs continues to take a “lethal toll” on Kentucky, driving up overdose deaths to unprecedented levels, according to the 2016 Overdose Fatality Report by the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

The report, released June 27, found that 1,404 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, a 7.4 percent increase over the previous year. Increased use of fentanyl is contributing to overdose deaths, the report found.

While nearly every community in Kentucky experienced overdose deaths, the toll was highest in Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky, the report found.

Ingram said the deadly fentanyl trend appears to be continuing, with that drug involved in more than half of this year’s overdose deaths.

Still, Ingram and others who addressed the committee said they hope access to treatment and other efforts will turn things around

“People do recover,” Ingram said.

Hancock, with the VOA, said her agency has had success with Freedom House, a program it offers pregnant women who suffer from addiction.

By reaching them early in the pregnancy and offering them housing and treatment, the VOA has been able to help women get off drugs and deliver healthy babies not impaired by drugs, Hancock said.