Al Smith: Five years in, hope in Kentucky's battles with addiction, tooth decay

Journalist Al Smith recounted his story of recovery in his memoir Wordsmith.
Journalist Al Smith recounted his story of recovery in his memoir Wordsmith.

For Kentuckians hammered with distressing reports on the state's poor health conditions, there was a scattering of good news this past week that followed Gov. Steve Beshear's decision to expand the Medicaid program to provide coverage to 300,000 more citizens without insurance.

They didn't make headlines, but in Clark and Boone counties there were five-year anniversary celebrations to mark progress in two areas of public health — dental care for school children in Clark, and treatment for women with alcohol and drug addictions in Boone.

And in Louisville this month, the Kentucky Board of Dentistry took a big step to reach underserved kids with tooth problems through local health departments. The board finished the process of establishing the position of public heath dental hygienist and permitting those hygienists to go into the schools and do the first work of assessing teeth, giving basic preventive care and connecting children to community dentists.

Clark County's unique Dental Health Initiative, a partnership of 17 dentists and 127 volunteers, was selected as a model practice by a national association of all the health departments in the United States. "It isn't often that a private volunteer program in Kentucky sets a national standard," said Dr. Rankin Skinner, director of the Clark County program.

Just completing their fifth year of outreach to children, Skinner said his group welcomes the new dental entity. "These hygienists will be able to do school fluoride varnish programs, place sealants, refer kids in pain, and promote dental health programs (like brushing and better nutrition) in the schools without being supervised by a dentist," he said. "I think this is a major step in developing dental health program like ours across the state and moving our kids towards better health in general."

Meanwhile in Florence, Kentucky's first lady, Jane Beshear, a Democrat, again joined her co-chair of Recovery Kentucky, Don Ball, the Lexington homebuilder and fund-raiser for Republican politicians, to cheer the gains made at one of the 10 Recovery Kentucky homes that also are becoming a national model — for the good fight to break the grip of addiction and put people back on their feet, at work and reunited with families and friends.

At the Brighton Recovery Center for Women, Beshear and Ball were greeted with balloons, candles and smiling women who had baked a birthday cake and prepared a festive lunch to celebrate a treatment program that has graduated nearly 800 women in five years at Brighton and treated 10,000 men and women, including at model centers in Lexington and Louisville.

Initiated during the administration of Gov. Ernie Fletcher and continued and expanded by Beshear, Recovery Kentucky has support from multiple agencies such as the Kentucky Housing Corporation, the drug courts and the Department of Corrections. Ten houses — half for men, half for women — each with 100 beds and now with a waiting list of up to six months, have been completed.

Four more homes are planned. Two of them, at Bowling Green and Hindman, are to be built this year.

At Brighton, several young women participants told visitors how the 12-Step program learned through their stay of six months had changed their lives. "I quit drinking and drugs," said one. "But I got so much more than that. I got a job, kids back in my life, a higher power, and I am happy. This place saved my life."

Noting a 69 percent reduction in drug use and a 67 percent drop in homelessness, Beshear said the birthday lunch was prepared by Brighton participants who were graduating from a new culinary training program managed by an experienced chef. Next steps, said her co-chair, Ball, are to create more jobs for graduates and drug-free housing in which to sustain their escape from addiction.