Prescription drug abuse -- a question of treatment

Published on
July 9, 2012

Much has been written about the nation’s prescription drug abuse epidemic -- at our newspaper and many others.

But one crucial aspect of the story is often ignored – treatment for addicts.

My fellowship project will seek to explore, in an in-depth way, the role of treatment, and whether we have enough treatment programs and facilities in Kentucky, where we lose about 1,000 residents a year to prescription drug overdose deaths.

Initial reporting shows that Kentucky has far too few treatment centers for its ever-growing addict population. Long-term treatment centers, hailed by many experts as the most effective type, are particularly scarce.

A recent University of Kentucky report said the state had just over 1,000 licensed, residential, substance-abuse beds for adults, and only 17 of 37 treatment centers offer long-term stays of 90 days or more.

And less than 8 percent of Kentuckians who need substance abuse treatment get it in a state-funded program.

The problem is worst in Appalachia, a rural, poverty-stricken region with the state’s highest drug abuse rates. It’s difficult for residents here – especially those with low incomes –just to get regular preventive care like flu shots and mammograms. Many lack insurance and reliable transportation, and are also hampered by doctor shortages and difficult-to-travel roads. Mental health and substance abuse access is even more difficult.

As many experts on drug abuse have told me – and as many of us know from experiences in our own families – the effects of drug abuse reach far beyond the addict. Drug abuse can affect and even endanger everyone around an addict. Often, it can endanger a person’s life before it’s even begun.

Because treatment can be scarce and difficult to access, many pregnant addicts go without, and wind up giving birth to babies dependent on prescription drugs. In addition to the agony these babies suffer shortly after birth, some go on to suffer developmental delays. Drug abuse claims a second generation, at a huge cost to society.

My project will take a hard look at how lack of treatment contributes to this problem, and how these innocent victims exemplify the fact that prescription drug abuse is not just about addicts, and cannot be ignored.

In my fellowship project, I hope to find and visit other places that handle treatment better than Kentucky, which our state could learn from.

In the end, I hope my reporting helps provide guidance in solving one of Kentucky’s biggest social problems – guidance that could translate nationally.

I plan to draw on my almost 22 years of experience as a reporter in Louisville, Ky., Wilmington, Del. and Hartford, Conn., and my decade covering health and medicine.

I expect, as in past projects, to rely on my ability to synthesize large amounts of data and information and weave it with the human stories that show the emotional truth of a situation. I’ve already begun talking to a couple of mothers of babies born addicted, and I believe no reader could turn away from their stories.

Ultimately, I believe readers will find many reasons to care about this issue, and to take action. A previous prescription drug abuse story of mine helped inspire a new law clamping down on the problem set to take effect this week in our state. I’m hoping this project moves people just as much.