Collaboration Key to Defeating Opioid Epidemic 

 By Eli Capilouto  

It is the word perhaps heard most often at the RX Drug Summit in Atlanta – collaboration. 

It is the idea that defeating this epidemic cannot be owned by one branch or form of government. It is not the province of one university or one sector of law enforcement. It cannot be thwarted solely by the thousands of health providers and community volunteers who toil on the frontlines of this effort. 

It takes all of them.  

As importantly, it takes all of these groups and organizations—policymakers and health professionals, researchers, law enforcement agents, and judges — working together as partners. 

After all, the challenge we face is too complex for one approach or one solution. It changes shape and form too often for us not to partner in ways that make us more efficient and effective, but also nimble and capable of adapting as the challenge does.   

For example, as Congressman Hal Rogers has reminded us often during the Summit, significant progress is being made in the fight against prescription drugs – a fight he started in his home region more than 15 years ago, as the powerfully addictive painkiller OxyContin captured so many in a vice-like grip.  

In recent years, though, led by the expansion of drug courts and prescription drug monitoring programs, among others, we have increased awareness of the problem and lowered multiple prescription rates. However, as Congressman Rogers has noted, now the challenge is shifting and changing shape. As prescriptions waned, the proliferation of heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs increased, along with a resurgence in methamphetamine. 

As a result, we must adapt. 

Throughout this week, the signs of collaboration and partnership are everywhere. 

We are adapting.  

Contingents from the University of Kentucky and the Commonwealth of Kentucky are here and are meeting to discuss how to begin implementation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) HEAL grant – a four-year, $87 million plan to reduce opioid deaths in 16 counties across the state.  

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Dr. Nora Volkow are leading the push to invest unprecedented levels of resources to fight the epidemic in strategic, thoughtful, and comprehensive ways. 

On the sidelines of the conference, our team – led by Sharon Walsh – is meeting and engaging in conversations with leaders from law enforcement, leaders in the legislature, Congressman Rogers, and other federal officials, around the goal of working quickly to begin implementation of the grant.   

It is inspiring to watch policymakers— such as Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley and his team, joined by state Senator Whitney Westerfield, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee — in a conversation with Walsh and our Vice President for Research Lisa Cassis.  

Many of the partners at the table have worked together on these initiatives for more than a decade. Now, with funding toward an ambitious goal, they are engaging in how best to implement the HEAL grant. They are thinking through together what barriers might exist, what bureaucratic hurdles have to be cleared, and how can they work quickly to leverage funds to maximize their impact, with the goal of creating sustainable solutions that yield quick results. 

“It is easy to talk about collaboration. The reality in Kentucky is we do it on a daily basis,” Tilley said. “We work toward a common goal.”   

Such commonly held interests united toward shared, but ambitious goals were the theme of a final session Tuesday evening – headlined by Walsh, Volkow, Collins, and UK doctoral student Alex Elswick, who is in long-term recovery from his addiction and has founded the organization, Voices of Hope.   

Walsh told conferees in Atlanta that the HEAL grant, for example, is unusual because it required the lead researchers to identify a key partner at the state level. The idea, she said, was that such partnering was necessary to create solutions that were long-term and sustainable.  

Indeed, collaborators at UK and in the Commonwealth can, at times, seem to finish each other’s sentences, so close is their collaboration. They can rattle off the progressive policy changes that have been made in Kentucky – from limiting pain prescriptions to three days, to ensuring that Medicaid covers Methadone (an often-used drug in medically-assisted treatment). And they also can pinpoint and work with us on other policy changes that may need to be made to ensure that the HEAL grant’s goals – the goals we need for our state to reduce overdose deaths – are met. 

“I think (this grant and what it proposes) is incredibly bold, and it is ambitious,” Walsh said. “I think we need, given the state of the crisis, to be bold … we need to get the crisis under control … This is unlike anything else. This is like our moonshot.” 

 It is a moonshot unlike anything our federal representatives, the state, and its University have ever attempted. 

But with partners, it is not only a moonshot worth attempting, but it is also one where reaching beyond our grasp is the choice we must make. 

It is what our Commonwealth has called us together to do.