Fighting opioid addiction must include job training for those in recovery

John Tilley
John Tilley

The numbers aren’t final yet, but 2017 will likely be another record-breaking year for overdose deaths in Kentucky.

That’s astonishing when you consider that more than 1,400 of our friends, relatives and neighbors lost their lives to opioids in 2016. The suffering has been immense. Nearly every family has been impacted by this scourge. Our foster-care system, our courts, our prisons and jails, and our first responders are near the breaking point.

The Bevin administration and the General Assembly have moved swiftly to create laws and implement policies that address this crisis. However, an epidemic of this size and scope will require continued vigilance and strategic action. For that reason, Gov. Bevin’s proposed budget includes $34 million to continue the fight, and I am urging every Kentuckian to support this funding.

It will help save lives — possibly the life of someone you know — and it will allow us to build on a number of promising initiatives.

Last year, Kentucky was a national leader in enacting a three-day limit on opioid prescriptions for acute pain. This law is a major step in closing a key entry point into opioid addiction. The Bevin administration also launched the “Don’t Let Them Die” awareness campaign along with the educational website DontLetThemDie.com. Additional efforts are underway to increase the distribution of life-saving Narcan kits.

And the administration secured $10.3 million in federal funds to address prevention and recovery. With the funding, we have challenged medical and dental schools to integrate more opioid stewardship, prescriber education, addiction recovery training and opioid stewardship into their curriculum. More residency training is also critical. All of these are important steps to preventing addiction on the front end, and as a result, prescriptions for powerful drugs have fallen by 70 million dosage units.

But helping those who already suffer from a substance use disorder remains a significant challenge. We have already taken steps in that arena: Through the Don’t Let Them Die campaign, we partnered with Operation Unite on a statewide telephone helpline, 833-8KY-HELP (833-859-4357). And we worked with our partners at the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create FindHelpNowKy.org, a website designed to quickly connect people with counseling and treatment resources.

Still, Kentucky needs to greatly expand public-private partnerships that create long-term treatment facilities with a special focus on opioid addiction. Opioid addiction is powerful and a lifelong battle. Short-term stays in a treatment program approved by third-party providers have proven inadequate in many cases, and programs of six months or perhaps longer are often needed.

These long-term programs should include a job training component. When an individual is in recovery, the opportunity to work can provide critically needed accountability that aids in recovery. The ultimate goal is to save lives and allow sufferers to reenter society as contributing members. No one who dies of an overdose can reach that goal. In addition, we need many more peer support specialists. Pilot programs that have incorporated this type of counseling and support have proven very effective in other states.

More effective and expansive education programs on the use of opioids and the risks of overprescribing are also necessary. Likewise, the proposed funds are needed to assist in interdicting and disrupting drug trafficking organizations. These criminal enterprises are preying on addicted people by trafficking in deadly synthetic drugs like fentanyl. The heart-wrenching story of the opioid epidemic is now a tragic theme in our daily headlines. Though progress has been made in this battle, we must not rest.

The funds proposed in the governor’s budget are desperately needed to move toward victory in what is one of the most daunting life and death struggles we have ever faced.

John Tilley is Kentucky Justice Secretary.