What if we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference? Would we seize the moment?
That’s fundamentally what is at stake — and there for the taking —in the fight against drug abuse, particularly against opioid abuse.
In Kentucky, we are poised for the first time to answer those questions decisively. The time to act is now.
We know the stakes have never been higher: More than 42,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdoses in 2016 and even more in 2017. More than 2 million were impacted by opioid misuse and abuse.
The Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy estimated the loss of productivity, health-care costs and drug-related crime at between $2.5 billion and $3.6 billion annually. Another recent report estimated that Kentucky is spending $6 billion annually on issues related to substance-abuse disorder.
We know the wretched reach of drugs impacts our state at disproportionately high levels. Kentucky ranks third in the United States in overdose deaths, and the numbers are climbing higher here and across the country.
No region or community is immune from this epidemic of despair. Drugs don’t discriminate by political party or race, zip code or ethnicity. We all know someone, or some part of a community, decimated by drugs. The numbers are mind-numbing because they are pervasive. They seem to spiral in an endless cycle.
But it doesn’t have to be that way any longer.
In the past few months, a remarkable confluence of resources, federal and state governments, clinicians, caregivers, researchers, and public and private partners have come together around the idea that it’s time to end the scourge of drug abuse and addiction in our commonwealth and in America.
It’s not hyperbole or starry-eyed optimism. Consider the proof:
▪ The recent RX Summit in Atlanta, founded through the visionary leadership of Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers, gathered 3,000 researchers and federal, state, local and non-profit officials. Those gathered heard National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, announce a new front in the fight against opioid abuse.
▪ The HEAL Initiative — Helping to End Addiction Long-Term — will accelerate research efforts around prevention, addiction treatment and overdose reversal. The initiative is being supported by a $500-million increase in the NIH budget for opioid and pain research. This coming year, more than $1 billion will be spent on these efforts. That laser focus is part of a more than $3 billion increase this year alone in the NIH budget, which was championed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
▪ In Kentucky, the General Assembly included $40 million in the budget over the next two years for the University of Kentucky to attack health disparities in our state. Those resources would empower us to recruit, retain and outfit with technology and infrastructure leading researchers and clinicians who focus on stubborn health challenges afflicting Kentucky. Chief among them is substance abuse.
▪ There is a concerted effort by Gov. Matt Bevin, Justice Secretary John Tilley and a bipartisan group of legislators to enact common-sense criminal justice reforms. Those reforms emphasize drug treatment and rehabilitation over incarceration. Treatment and prevention — fueled by research and care — take us part of the way home. Another piece is ensuring second chances for those who are reformed with necessary skills training and a good job.
Drug addiction and abuse, after all, is a multi-faceted problem. It requires a multi-faceted solution.
Kentucky can be a model for how we come together to end a challenge that has confounded us for too long. We have the committed leadership. We are investing the necessary resources. We are seeking global and local policy solutions and interventions that can make a difference.
We have a chance to turn the tide. It will take all of us — public and private partners, faith-based communities and non-profit centers — working with uncommon resolve toward a common purpose.
We need to ask ourselves: What if we had a distinctive opportunity to make a difference? Would we seize the moment?
We must answer with a resounding “yes.” We are poised, like never before, to act. This chance may not come our way again.
Eli Capilouto is president of the University of Kentucky.