National Leaders, UK Launch HEALing Communities Study to Stem Tide of Opioid Deaths

Flanked by national leaders in the fight to reduce deaths from opioid use – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar – the University of Kentucky Monday officially launched the HEALing (Helping End Addiction Long-term) Communities Study – Kentucky.

“Today’s launch symbolizes – in the most powerful and compelling way possible – what it means to be the University for Kentucky,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “We have been called, in collaboration with partners and leaders at the federal and state levels, to turn the tide. Today’s announcement represents that unwavering commitment on the part of Kentucky’s university in partnership with federal and state governments. We ask ourselves at the University of Kentucky:  What is possible? When smart, determined, good-hearted people hear the trumpet sound and link arms in common cause:  Healing is possible. A saved life is possible. A restored dignity is possible. A renewed family is possible. A rebuilt future is possible."

In April, UK – partnering with the Commonwealth of Kentucky – was one of four sites selected from across the country for the HEALing Communities Initiative. UK’s grant from the National Institutes of Health totals $87 million, the largest in its history, and is focused over the next three years on reducing opioid-related deaths by 40 percent in 16 counties across the Commonwealth.

 “It’s a privilege to join President Capilouto and Dr. Walsh in launching the largest federal grant in UK’s history,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The HEAL initiative is not only an investment in UK’s cutting-edge research, but it’s also a commitment to the future of families and individuals who need our help to reach long-term recovery. As Senate Majority Leader, I’m bringing national focus to Kentucky priorities, and I’m proud to have partners like Secretary Azar and Director Collins in the Trump administration who share my focus on middle America. Together, we recognize the incredible results this federal grant can have on communities throughout Kentucky, and we remain committed to doing all we can to fight this deadly opioid epidemic.”

The study is part of the NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative, a bold, trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. The goal is to develop evidence-based solutions to the opioid crisis and offer new hope for individuals, families and communities affected by this devastating disorder. More broadly, the idea is to see if solutions in different communities across the state can be scaled up and replicated as part of a national approach to the challenge.

“HEALing Communities is one of the single most important steps of the many that President Trump, Leader McConnell and Congress have taken to confront our country’s opioid crisis,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “We believe we can see impressive results from this effort in Kentucky, but the good news is that, under the President’s leadership and thanks to resources from Congress, the work of local communities is already producing results. Provisional counts of drug overdose deaths dropped from 2017 to 2018, the first drop in more than 20 years, and overdose deaths in Kentucky are down more than 10 percent over the most recently reported 12-month period. Those results are a tribute to people and communities working on the ground — in Kentucky and all across America.”

Sharon Walsh, director of UK’s Center for Drug and Alcohol Research and the Principal Investigator on the study, said a great deal of work is already underway to help facilitate a successful launch of the grant in the 16 study sites. Significant milestones that have been completed or that will be undertaken in the next several months include:

UK researchers/staff already are in the field doing pilot work in several communities. About 20 UK researchers across six colleges are involved in the grant. The Kentucky grant is being done in partnership with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) and the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet (JPSC). Secretaries Adam Meier and John Tilley, from the state’s Health and Family Services Cabinets and Justice, respectively, attended the announcement Monday.

  • Since the grant announcement in April, UK and the teams from the other national sites have worked to develop a common protocol for all four test sites. The result, Walsh said, will be a more powerful demonstration of effectiveness – supported by more robust data – at the completion of the study in 3 years.
  • The randomization of counties will be completed later this month – a significant milestone that will determine those counties that will begin the community-engagement process to select and deploy evidence-based practices.
  • Existing community coalitions supported by the state in each county will work closely with the research team to assess local community needs and gaps in services. This process will lead to the identification and deployment of locally customized evidence-based practices and resources, Walsh said.
  • UK is working to establish several regional offices that will help in coordinating and guiding efforts in each community.
  • More than 31 new staff have been hired as part of the study. Additional jobs are posted and listed at www.uky.edu/hr/jobs/healingky.

“This life-saving mission would have sounded like an impossible and unachievable goal a few years ago, but today, we are finally seeing tangible evidence that we can drive down accidental opioid overdoses and prevent addiction before it starts,” said Congressman Hal Rogers, the dean of Kentucky’s congressional delegation from the state’s 5th District. “I believe UK has an effective plan in place, along with critical multi-disciplinary partnerships to disrupt this national crisis. Years from now, I believe this could be a life-saving victory worthy of hanging from the rafters of Rupp Arena.”

Consider the dimensions of the problem nationally and in Kentucky:

  • More than 2 million Americans live with opioid use disorder.
  • Life expectancy in this country has dropped — fueled, in large measure, by drug overdose deaths.
  • Kentucky currently is ranked 5th in the United States for opioid overdose deaths and has suffered through the opioid epidemic since its inception.

“Today, lawmakers from across the Commonwealth have joined together to launch the HEALing Communities study, a program that will allow the University of Kentucky to continue to lead the nationwide effort to combat the opioid crisis,” said Congressman Andy Barr, who represents Kentucky 6th Congressional District. “Kentucky has the fifth-highest overdose mortality rate in the nation, so it is imperative that we continue to secure resources for the Commonwealth to combat this tragic crisis. As expected, the University of Kentucky has put together an incredibly talented team to undertake this initiative. I have no doubt that, through their efforts, the goal of reducing opioid overdose deaths by 40 percent in 16 counties - including six counties in the Sixth District - will be reached. Thank you, Secretary Azar and Director Collins, for joining us at UK to kick off this vital project.”

Sixteen counties in Kentucky that are "highly affected communities" have been identified to be included in the randomized study. They include Fayette, Jessamine, Clark, Kenton, Campbell, Mason, Greenup, Carter, Boyd, Knox, Jefferson, Franklin, Boyle, Madison, Bourbon and Floyd counties. Overall, these rural and metropolitan counties had 764 opioid overdose deaths in 2017 with two-thirds of them involving fentanyl. They also represent about 40 percent of the state’s population of more than 4 million people.

“Too many Kentuckians have fallen victim to our nation’s opioid crisis. I am pleased that NIH has recognized the research capabilities of the University of Kentucky and has chosen to invest in our local communities to be a key part of their important HEALing Communities study," said Congressman Brett Guthrie, who represents Kentucky's 2nd Congressional District. "This grant will be vital to helping reduce opioid misuse and opioid use disorder to ultimately reduce opioid-related deaths in Kentucky and around the country. As a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, I have proudly worked with my colleagues to pass legislation such as the 21st Century Cures Act and the SUPPORT Act, but the fight is not over. I am grateful to Secretary Azar and Dr. Collins for joining us today in Kentucky to discuss UK’s work and what more can be done to help those with opioid use disorder.”