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Date: 09-21-2017

Opioid epidemic in Kentucky is 'a public health catastrophe,' experts tell lawmakers

FRANKFORT, Ky. — It wasn't until his second year of a residency in a prestigious anesthesiology program at Johns Hopkins University that Dr. Michael Sprintz's addiction caught up with him and he was kicked out of the program and into treatment.

"Everyone has a drug of choice," said Sprintz, who became sober and eventually completed his medical training. "For me it was everything."

But he warned Kentucky lawmakers that tackling addiction sweeping the state isn't easy and it will take a sustained effort to reach individuals impaired by drugs or alcohol.

"The thinking isn't logical," said Sprintz, who practices anesthesiology, pain management and addiction medicine in Houston. "It took me literally losing everything to think, 'Huh, maybe I have a problem.'"

Kentucky's opioid addiction crisis was the the subject of an unusual daylong meeting Wednesday in Frankfort, where a legislative committee heard from experts on the wave of heroin and prescription pill abuse engulfing many Kentucky communities.

And the news isn't good, Van Ingram, executive director of the state office of drug control policy told the joint House-Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

"When the clock strikes midnight tonight, four Kentuckians will have died of a drug overdose," he said. "When the clock strikes midnight tonight, 140 Americans will have died from a drug overdose. These deaths are preventable, and they don't have to happen."

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 tremendous 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.

The average cost of an infant born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, impaired by drugs the mother took, is about $100,000, Hancock said. That's because most such babies require lengthy stays in intensive care, with most costs born by the state's Medicaid program.

Just 10 healthy babies represents a savings of $1 million, she said.

So far, the VOA has helped 150 women deliver babies unaffected by drugs, Hancock said, but the demand for their services grows. 

Sen. Julie Raque Adams, a Louisville Republican and chairwoman of the Senate health committee, wondered whether more such programs are needed.

"Do we have enough Freedom Houses to take care of these moms?" she asked.

Hancock said VOA recently broke ground on a second campus to help with the demand for services by pregnant women, funded through private fundraising and $500,000 from Louisville Metro Government. But that may not be enough, she told lawmakers.

"We need to continue to do more and we need your help," she said.

Lawmakers appeared concerned by the testimony but also will be confronted with a tight budget and competing demands for funds, including the state's acutely underfunded public pension system, when they convene in 2018 for the next legislative session. Meanwhile, Gov. Matt Bevin has proposed cuts of 17 percent in most state agencies to deal with a projected shortfall in the current fiscal year.

Still Rep. Addia Wuchner, a Burlington Republican and chair of the House Health and Family Services Committee, said Wednesday's meeting was a chance for lawmakers to get more information about the problem she described as a "ravenous beast."

"Addiction is destroying families and lives, it erodes communities," she said. "People with addiction are suffering from a chemical disease that afflicts the brain and destroys the body."

She also suggested compassion for those experiencing addiction.

"No one chooses this life," Wuchner said.

Sprintz, the Houston physician, said those seeking to help people with addiction must consider the trauma they may have experienced or emotional pain they are suffering, invoking his own experiences as a medical student.

"On paper, I looked freaking awesome," he said. "But I hated myself. I hated my life. In my head I had fooled everyone."

By Deborah Yetter
The Courier-Journal

 

Comments  

+2 #2 Free 2017-09-23 20:56
Free heroin. Let them go out happy.
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+2 #1 DitchMitch 2017-09-21 23:02
Mitch and his D.C. cronies spent $254 million to fly helicopters to try and eradicate marijuana. Should've spent tax payers money on fighting heroin, meth and pills. The states that have medical and recreational marijuana have a huge reduction in prescription opioid use, that's a fact. Kentucky law makers are complete jokes who literally don't get it and don't care. They'd rather see someone use morphine than marijuana, it's obvious on the way they vote and act. $254 million to find a plant that God created and it doesn't kill anyone who uses it, does that make any sense whatsoever? If my loved one chose to use marijuana instead of pain killers, I'd be a lot less worried about them getting addicted and actually dying.
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