Lawmakers examine Kentucky's problems with heroin and other opiates during lengthy hearing

09/20/2017 06:17 PM

FRANKFORT — Lawmakers on the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare and Family Services and the Medicaid Oversight and Advisory Committee held a marathon hearing Wednesday on Kentucky’s struggles with opiate addiction.

The panel heard from a variety of speakers during the lengthy meeting, such as doctors, law enforcement, nonprofit groups and business leaders.

They touched on topics like treatment options for expecting mothers, precursors to drug abuse, how to better treat addiction and how to raise awareness about opiates.

Rep. Kim Moser, a Taylor Mill Republican and co-chair of the Medicaid Oversight and Advisory Committee, called the scourge of opioid addiction a “complex issue” that “cuts across all demographics,” and Rep. Addia Wuchner, a Florence Republican who chairs the House Health and Welfare and Family Services Committee, said those abusing heroin and other opiates “are suffering from a chemically-inflicted disease that attacks the brain and tortures the body.”

“The single-most important lesson that I’ve been learning the last few months and almost a year when I’ve been visiting treatment centers and individuals who have lost family members and then went to the streets to actually visit those who are in the throngs of addiction is that no one chooses this life,” she said. “No one makes that choice, but there is hope in recovery.”

Many presenters honed in on treatment and recovery options for those battling opioid addiction.

Dr. Mark Jorrisch, president of the Kentucky chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said the best way to treat those hooked on heroin and other opiates is through medicine-assisted options.

“There’s no question that medication-assisted treatment must be combined with adequate counseling and support and attention to continued care,” Jorrisch said. “Our patients have a multitude of problems.”

Dr. Allen Brenzel — clinical director of the Department of Behavioral Health, Development and Intellectual Disabilities in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services — agreed and said medication-assisted treatment can take many forms.

Some addicts only need short-term help while others can take much longer to completely kick their illicit habits, but Brenzel says it’s important to destigmatize medication-assisted treatment as patients work to get their lives in order.

“If this is something that the individual requires to lead a healthy lifestyle, to work, to have insurance, to raise their kids, then we have to end this stigma that somehow if you’re not off your medication that you’re not in recovery, and I do think we’re progress in that,” Brenzel said.

“We’ve had a long battle, in my opinion, over the last 10 to 15 years about abstinence-only versus medication-assisted treatment. It’s not versus. It’s that individual assessment that leads to the individual, most appropriate treatment for that person.”

Others touched on initiatives offered by their groups to help pregnant women overcome their addictions and give birth to healthy babies.

Jennifer Hancock, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States, said her group recently opened Freedom House, a transitional treatment unit in Louisville designed to keep new mothers in safe housing while they continue to overcome their addictions.

About 10 percent of patients utilize the Freedom House while the remaining 90 percent take their children home with continued counseling from Volunteers of America, she said.

“In the absence of enough safe, affordable housing that is not drug-infested or crime-ridden, we have opened up our own transitional housing to ensure mom has a safe place to live with her family,” Hancock said.

“She remains connected to our program for up to two years, so our goal is to keep that family attached to us for that child’s first three years of life, recognizing that’s when there’s greatest vulnerability for the loss of life and other issues resulting from abuse and neglect.”

While Hancock says Volunteers of America will continue working with mothers for up to two years during their roads to recovery, that’s not the case for others.

Dr. Henrietta Bada, the director of the Department of Public Health’s Division of Maternal and Child Health, said that half of pregnant Kentucky women entered into treatment leave once they give birth.


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.