Politics & Government

Central Kentucky families of overdose victims give top U.S. prosecutor plenty to think about

U. S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke about the dangers of opioids and heroin during a meeting with more than 500 high school students at Madison Central High School in Richmond Tuesday.
U. S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke about the dangers of opioids and heroin during a meeting with more than 500 high school students at Madison Central High School in Richmond Tuesday.

The nation’s top prosecutor heard Tuesday a measure of the pain of Central Kentucky families who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses.

In a meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, one father talked of lying awake nights waiting for his addicted son to make it home as other parents nodded about their similar experiences.

Family members told Lynch of their desperate searches for treatment for kids addicted to heroin or prescription painkillers, about difficulties paying for treatment, about lives cut short.

Alex Elswick, in long-term recovery for heroin addiction, talked about what families can do if a loved one has a drug problem.

“We cry every day,” David Greene of Lexington said of he and his wife, Kayla. Their son Domonique died of a heroin overdose last October at age 23, leaving behind a baby daughter.

Lynch attended events in Lexington and Richmond on Tuesday as part of the first national week designated to try to focus attention on abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers called opioids, such as OxyContin and Percocet, as problems with the drugs get worse in Kentucky and around the nation.

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“The explosion in opioid and heroin abuse in the U.S. in recent years is truly an epidemic, and no one is immune,” Lynch said in a speech at the University of Kentucky.

The White House said in a news release that Lynch and other federal officials will take part in more than 250 events around the country this week to focus attention on heroin and opioid abuse

Family members of overdose victims in Central Kentucky met Lynch in Lexington at the office of U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey. The people were members of a group called USA HEAT, for U.S. Attorney’s Heroin Education Action Team.

Harvey’s office helped set up the group last year and helps members tell their stories to increase understanding by parents and the public of heroin and painkiller abuse.

Members have given presentations to more than 2,500 people at schools, churches and other locations, including the federal prison in Manchester.

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“These are folks who have suffered just an unimaginable loss, and yet they’re committed to using what happened to them to make our community a better place,” Harvey said.

If the family members’ pain was evident in the subdued meeting with Lynch, so too was their determination to raise awareness of drug problems in hopes of sparing others the same pain.

They had plenty to tell Lynch about what’s needed to tackle the problem, including more efforts to raise awareness among parents.

“Parents aren’t prepared for this kind of thing,” said Lynne Huelsing, whose daughter Elizabeth, an engaging, compassionate young woman with a full college scholarship, died on Christmas Eve in 2014 of a heroin overdose. “You don’t train for a drug emergency.”

Other needs they described included more effective prevention education for young people; better ways for families to find treatment resources; treatment that lasts long enough; quick access to treatment in the moments of clarity when addicts reach for help; and more affordable treatment options.

Walt Rains told Lynch that once when his son Zac went for treatment for heroin addiction, the center called after 10 days — long before the treatment was complete — and said that was the limit covered by his wife’s insurance plan, and he’d have to start paying out of pocket for additional help.

U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey speaks in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 20, 2016, about a group of family members of drug overdose victims who share their experiences to raise awareness about the dangers of drug abuse.

“I find that reprehensible,” said Rains, adding that Congress should address the issue.

Lynch said she valued the family members’ information and was struck by the power of a committed group of people coming together to tell their stories to a variety of audiences.

“Their stories were devastating, but their resolve to spare other parents the same fate is inspiring,” Lynch said at UK.

Harvey said he was not aware of a similar program in any other U.S. Attorney’s office. Lynch mentioned trying to replicate it elsewhere, Harvey’s office said.

Kentucky is certainly a fitting place to try to increase awareness of heroin and painkiller abuse.

The White House said that the state was fourth in the nation in the drug poisoning death rate — which is how overdoses are classified — in 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The state has long had a severe problem with abuse of prescription pills, but use of heroin and an even more potent drug called fentanyl has risen rapidly the last couple of years.

Late last month, for instance, there were 12 heroin overdoses in less than 24 hours in Mount Sterling, police said.

Drug overdose statewide deaths rose to a record 1,248 in 2015, compared with 1,088 in 2014, according to the latest annual report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

Lynch said new federal statistics show 3.8 million people age 12 and up in the U.S. misuse prescription painkillers.

Before meeting with the USA HEAT members, Lynch took part in a discussion of heroin and opioid abuse at Madison Central High School.

About 500 students from Madison Central, Madison Southern and Richmond Model attended the event.

Dozens raised their hands when Lynch asked how many knew someone who had overdosed. Far fewer raised their hands when she asked how many people had survived.

Alex Elswick, who is in long-term recovery from addiction to heroin and pain pills, told the students he got hooked after he had his wisdom teeth removed and received pain pills.

Within months, he was homeless and shooting up heroin under a bridge in Dayton, Elswick said.

Elswick said he came from a privileged, stable family and was an athlete and good student at Henry Clay High School. He had struggled with anxiety and had a genetic predisposition to addiction, however.

Elswick told the students many of them likely thought something similar could never happen to them — just as he once did.

“You don’t know what you’re in for” when using drugs, he warned them.

Kayla Greene told students they’d be better served not to use any drugs, even marijuana. Her son used marijuana but eventually moved to pills and heroin, she said.

Lynch took questions from several students. One asked what students should do if it seems a friend has a drug problem.

Lynch said that while it wouldn’t be easy, students should tell a trusted adult — a parent, teacher or counselor.

“You’ve gotta get in between your friend and that problem,” she said.

At UK, Lynch announced $8.8 million to improve state prescription monitoring systems that have reduced the problem of people going to multiple doctors for pills. Kentucky’s system, considered one of the best in the nation, will get some money under the program, which is named for Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers.

Lynch said she also had called on governors to adopt best practices for the systems and to work with her department to better share information. That could help cut down on people going to other states to get pills.

The appearances this week by administration officials also are a way to push President Barack Obama’s call for $1.1 billion in new federal spending to fight opioid abuse, with a big chunk of it going to make medication-assisted treatment more widely available.

“This is something that’s needed for American families,” Lynch said.

The administration estimated in June that Kentucky would get up to $18 million over two years to boost access to treatment for opioid abuse if Congress approves Obama’s budget request.

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