Healing Communities, Expanding What is Possible

photo of HEAL grant researchers

The following op-ed, co-authored by President Capilouto and Dr. Sharon Walsh, appeared in several regional publications. 

What is possible?

What is possible when more than 20 researchers from six colleges at the University of Kentucky focus on one of the most challenging issues of our day?

What is possible when that team partners with 200 policymakers, community leaders and health care providers across the state?

What is possible when that work earns transformational federal support?

We believe it is possible to reduce opioid overdose deaths by 40 percent, offer relief from the stigma of substance use disorders, and provide hope and healing to those who face this disease of despair.

Two weeks ago, policymakers in Washington, D.C. made a historic investment in our university and state that has the potential to alter the trajectory of Kentucky’s future. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced that the University of Kentucky received a four-year, nearly $90 million grant focused on prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder and reducing the risk of overdose deaths in our communities.

The National Institutes of Health’s HEAL (Helping End Addiction Long-term) grant aims to reduce opioid overdose deaths in 16 counties across our state by 40 percent. UK was awarded this grant in partnership with two cabinets in state government. We were one of only four study sites across the country to earn this prestigious award.

Last week, University of Kentucky researchers and clinicians, scholars from other research institutions and policymakers from several states convened at the annual Rx Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. Their goal was to unite stakeholders to stem the tide of the epidemic.

This historic effort is vital. We all know someone touched by this epidemic. It is a disease, not a failure of character. Too often, addiction takes hold of a victim in the most unexpected circumstances: recovery from surgery or minor medical procedure or pain relief from injury on the job. Unfortunately, these initial events too often lead victims down a dark and seemingly endless path.

Consider the dimensions of the problem. More than 47,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose in 2017. More than two million Americans live with addiction to opioids. And Kentucky is ranked fifth in the United States for opioid overdose deaths.

If these statistics do not illustrate an urgent need for leading-edge work, consider that for the first time since World War I, life expectancy in this country has dropped for successive years.

Our success will only be possible through partnerships with those who have been — and continue to be — committed to this critical issue.

Kentucky’s federal delegation, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has provided essential support of our grant and the university’s long-term research and health care enterprise. Congressman Hal Rogers has been a leader on this issue for many years, speaking out long before almost anyone else and bringing together experts and policymakers for the annual Rx Summit, which now includes some 4,000 participants.

Gov. Matt Bevin and members of his Executive Cabinet are critical partners in our success. State legislators, led by Senate President Robert Stivers, had the vision to fund a new research building on our campus, whose purpose is fighting the diseases that most impact Kentucky.

And our success long-term will depend upon many thousands who will be involved in this work—partners stretching from Louisville to Olive Hill and Florence to Floyd County.

Our researchers – the word-class talent and committed scientists we have recruited to UK – are embarking on a promising journey to find solutions to intractable challenges.

When the first federal Morrill Land-Grant Act was passed in 1862, it was meant to meet the growing demand for agricultural and technical education in the United States.

Institutions like the University of Kentucky were created from that vision. We were called to provide education and training for more of our population, heralding a new economic era of growth in the aftermath of a Civil War.

For more than 150 years, we have remained committed to that mission. We are the University for Kentucky. This grant is a testament to that fact. This work matters to us because it matters to Kentucky. It matters to communities being decimated by this epidemic. It matters to families, who have been shrouded with a sense of shame and loss. It matters to individuals, who bravely fight this scourge today, hoping for relief and a path forward.

This work is dedicated to all of them.

Together, we will show the world what Kentucky can do.

Together, we will show what is possible.