By Beth Davisson, Nancy Hale and Tim Robinson
For the past 18 months and counting, Kentucky has battled the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing its decades-long fight against addiction. This has truly been an epidemic within a pandemic. But our state has a unique opportunity on the horizon that may forever change how we address addiction-related issues.
Earlier this year, the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis and the University of Kentucky Center of Excellence in Rural Health released a report discussing the factors that led to a decrease in drug overdose deaths in Eastern Kentucky between 2013 and 2017.
The study points to several contributing factors associated with the region’s decline in drug overdose deaths, including increased access to substance use disorder treatment, the development of a recovery ecosystem, prevention and education around substance use disorder, and the existence of strong partnerships, coalitions and collaborations throughout the state.
The COVID pandemic has created new challenges, reflected by the most recent Centers for Disease Control & Prevention data showing a nearly 50% increase in Kentucky drug overdose deaths between 2019 and 2020. More than 1,964 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses last year.
Fortunately, we will have an opportunity in the coming months to bolster our efforts in the fight against addiction like never before. Kentucky is receiving an unprecedented amount of funding via the American Rescue Plan Act, and we applaud our elected officials for prioritizing the addiction crisis, even amid a pandemic.
This is a big opportunity for Kentucky, and we must ensure these resources are allocated properly to have the most meaningful impacts and allow more Kentuckians to obtain long-term recovery. As evidenced by the NORC and University of Kentucky study, we have a solid framework to work from.
These funds must go to the comprehensive and proven treatment programs that are already successful in helping Kentuckians reach sustained recovery. And while treatment is an important first step toward recovery, funding should also be allocated to the critical wraparound services that help address the social determinants of recovery, such as residential housing, meaningful employment, transportation, childcare and peer support.
We know that employment, in particular, is vital to sustainable recovery. Programs that encourage fair chance hiring and provide training and reemployment services for individuals in recovery need ample support from policymakers.
Finally, to build a strong foundation of prevention, we must reach Kentuckians when they are young. This allows us to empower them with the knowledge and information they need to healthy, substance-free lives and become strong leaders in their communities.
The body of research around addiction treatment is growing. It has become increasingly clear that every individual is different and has unique needs that must be treated accordingly. There are now multiple proven pathways to recovery, many of which include medication-assisted treatment. Investing in these comprehensive programs and services is a good use of public funds. Every dollar invested in addiction treatment programs yields a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs and theft, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
There is great demand for mental health and addiction services across our state. At places like Addiction Recovery Care, The Healing Place and others, beds are available for people today. But if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that our health care system can indeed be stretched too thin.
To ensure we can continue meeting the increased mental health needs of Kentuckians in the years and decades to come, we must make investments now to build up and enhance our health care workforce. We can empower these dedicated individuals to play an active role in recognizing addiction and facilitating treatment when needed.
Although Kentucky has long been known as the epicenter for the addiction crisis, we are also leading the country when it comes to working together to identify and implement innovative solutions. As founding members of RECON KY, a group of stakeholders working to increase opportunities for long-term recovery, we know our work is cut out for us, but we feel hopeful about the road ahead.
With these new funding sources, we have an unprecedented opportunity to continue serving as a model to promote and support the proven treatment and recovery programs that are critical to overcoming this terrible addiction crisis and supporting our fellow Kentuckians.
The opportunity is before us. Now, let’s work together to do it right.
Tim Robinson is president and CEO of Addiction Recovery Care (ARC). Nancy Hale is president and CEO of Operation UNITE. Beth Davisson is senior vice president of the Kentucky Chamber Foundation. The authors are all founding members of RECON KY, a consortium for long-term recovery that brings together stakeholders from all parts of the treatment and recovery system.