Dark reality: Northern Kentucky heroin plan will need millions

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By Terry DeMio

The Kentucky Enquirer

A solution to Northern Kentucky’s heroin epidemic won’t come cheap, a new study warns.

It will, in fact, cost at least $16 million over four years just to reduce and stabilize heroin usage, a report from the Leadership Team of the Northern Kentucky Heroin Impact and Response Workgroup states.

But the cost of doing nothing could be higher.

“Right now, we have no ability to manage the patients who are addicted,” said Dr. Jeremy Engel, who spearheaded the work group in September 2012. “It’s chaos.”

The report doesn’t sugarcoat the dark reality confronting the region: “People are dying before they can access treatment,” it states flatly.

It appeals for a regionwide call to action, with most of the money funneling into expanding treatment.

On Thursday, the diverse group that created the plan will unveil it to the public.

Its stark conclusions are the result of a yearlong effort to scrutinize the epidemic and create strategies of attack.

Northern Kentucky, a center in the nation’s worst heroin crisis, is unique in the breadth of experts in the group: Business, political, law enforcement, substance abuse and medical leaders have banded together to create a range of strategies to fight the scourge.

The report is a result of that coalition, which gave The Enquirer an exclusive, advance look at its evidence-packed report, “Northern Kentucky’s Collective Response to the Heroin Epidemic, Our Plan for Recovery.”

Heroin abuse threatens Kentucky youth, newborns

“Heroin addiction is a potentially terminal illness that typically affects the young,” Engel said. “It is time to treat it as such.”

The report cites a stunning statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Survey about Kentucky juvenile heroin use:

Nearly three times more Kentucky 12th-graders surveyed have tried heroin than the nationwide average. The 2011 survey shows 7.7 percent of Kentucky’s high-school seniors surveyed tried heroin at least once compared with 2.9 percent nationally. Regional addiction specialists believe the rate is higher in Northern Kentucky and has risen the last two years.

The report also identifies newborns of addicted mothers as vulnerable. Care for babies born to opiate-addicted mothers in Northern Kentucky doubled in 2012 over 2011, costing $898,219.85 for 63 infants.

Plan of action

The report’s recovery plan is a four-pronged approach requiring changes in education, prevention, support and protection to reduce the supply of and demand for heroin in Northern Kentucky.

Dozens of strategies are outlined. Among the goals involving treatment by the end of 2017:

• The number of physicians trained to practice medically assisted treatment rise from nine to 40.

• An increase of residential treatment beds for adults by 200.

• The region’s first long-term residential treatment programs for adolescents (12-17) with 16 beds.

• Establishment of a case-management system so medical experts can track progress to recovery or death of heroin-addicted patients.

• Treatment for heroin-addicted inmates upon release.

The report also calls for intervention among children at risk for drug abuse because of emotional turmoil and education of infectious diseases for IV drug users. It raises the possibility of needle-exchange programs coupled with resources for addicts as a protection for the public. The team points to hepatitis C cases in Northern Kentucky, which are far higher than in the state and nation.

The plan calls for establishing an accountability team. “We now understand the heroin epidemic,” Engel said. “It is time to translate our understanding into commitment.”

“I had a friend OD on me. Her two kids were in the back seat. They were 2 months and 1 year,” says Strickley, now a 22-year-old recovering heroin addict. “I didn’t want that. I remember the fear I had in my heart. I thought, ‘I just killed their mother.’ ”

Paying for treatment

Leadership team members said the millions of dollars needed for the effort is attainable, but will take cooperation from the state.

Greater Cincinnati’s Interact for Health on Thursday will announce a grant challenging the community to help implement the plan. The agency will match business or organizations’ grants 1:1 and individuals’ gifts 2:1, said Ann Barnum, senior program officer. Checks should be made to the Northern Kentucky Area Development District with Response to Heroin Epidemic in the notation line, she said.

“This is such a compelling issue,” Barnum said. “This plan is so broad that everybody has a stake in it.”

The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and People Advocating Recovery will work to obtain state money for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The region gets the smallest share of treatment funds in Kentucky. The eight-county region – Boone, Campbell, Kenton, Gallatin, Grant, Pendleton, Owen and Carroll counties – receives $17 per capita in treatment money, compared with the state average of $21.17. Getting that additional $4.17 per person more would equate to nearly $2 million more.

Officials say Northern Kentucky has fueled the economic engine of the state for years, but it can no longer do so without the state substance abuse and mental health funding.