LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - The University of Kentucky and the Commonwealth of Kentucky were awarded an $87 million grant to help reduce opioid overdose deaths.
The four-year study is part of a partnership between the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.
"It looks like lives being shattered, families being shattered, communities being shattered. It looks like devastation," said Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin when describing the state's opioid epidemic.
The Kentucky and UK study is one of four in the U.S. selected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The study is part of NIH's "Helping to End Addiction Long-Term," or HEAL Initiative.
Alex Elswick of Lexington spoke at Thursday's announcement in Washington, D.C., sharing his story of overcoming heroin addiction and how on Friday he'll be attending a college classmate's funeral.
"And I'm sorry to say that HEAL came too late for him, but HEAL's just in time for the tens of thousands of lives that it's going to save going forward," said Elswick.
Researchers will work to find solutions to combat the opioid epidemic which helping those directly affected.
"What Kentucky is going to be doing for the rest of the country is actually testing the best interventions that can be built around the individual, with the goal of over three years reducing opioid deaths by 40 percent," said Alex M. Azar II, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
“Kentuckians know the insidiousness of this disease better than most,” UK President Eli Capilouto said. “The opioid epidemic does not discriminate by zip code, race, income, or any other demographic characteristic. It is not a character or moral failing, but an illness. It's unforgiving. It touches us all. We all know someone — a member of our family, a loved one, a lifelong friend or classmate — whose life has been damaged by this illness. Its victims are us. But there is hope. There is us. That is why we believe aggressive, ambitious change is possible. Indeed, it is essential. That is why we believe we can — and must — lead the way.”
Capilouto publicly thanked Gov. Matt Bevin's administration and members of Kentucky's federal delegation, namely Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul along with Reps. Andy Barr and Hal Rogers, for their support in securing the funding.
Dr. Sharon Walsh will head up the research at UK. Walsh said they will take steps including increasing access to treatment, boosting services at needle exchanges and expanding availability and training for Narcan.
"It is ambitious, but I think that if we can pull all the pieces together and really create a new kind of network that ties all the services that are available and really reach the people who are at greatest risk," Walsh said. "I think we really can do this."
The university says Kentucky is currently ranked fifth in the U.S. for opioid overdose deaths.
There are 16 counties considered "highly affected communities" which will be included in the study. The university named Fayette, Jessamine, Clark, Kenton, Campbell, Mason, Greenup, Carter, Boyd, Knox, Jefferson, Franklin, Boyle, Madison, Bourbon and Floyd counties as those included. 764 opioid overdose deaths occurred in these counties in 2017. Two-thirds involved fentanyl.