Congressman John Yarmuth addresses attendees at a meeting of the South Louisville Opioid Taskforce at Lynnhurst United Church of Christ. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

The role of government in combating the nation’s substance abuse epidemic was a major topic at the South Louisville Opioid Task Force at the Lynnhurst United Church of Christ on Tuesday night.

Several speakers called for increased federal funding for recovery and job assistance programs for recovering addicts in Louisville. They also emphasized the importance of the state’s Medicaid program to helping addicts receive the medical treatment they need while going through detox.

The opioid task force was convened in June by State Representatives McKenzie Cantrell, D-38, and Joni Jenkins, D-44, after a study identified the south Louisville districts they represent as having the most accidental drug overdoses in the city for 2017. The task force includes elected leaders, substance abuse counselors and community activists.

Special guest Congressman John Yarmuth, D-3, told the more than 60 people at Tuesday’s meeting that efforts to limit access to health care could hinder the community from combating the drug crisis.

Reversing the Medicaid expansion that occurred after the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010 has been a longtime goal for many conservative politicians. Gov. Matt Bevin, for example, has threatened to roll back Medicaid expansion in Kentucky if a plan to include a work or community engagement requirement and premiums is derailed.

Congressman John Yarmuth told the audience at the South Louisville Opioid Taskforce meeting that they needed to resist cuts to Kentucky’s Medicaid system. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

“We have to make sure we resist every effort to roll back Medicaid coverage because so much of the treatment for opioid addiction, and addiction in general, is done through Medicaid. We need funding, but most of all we need community participation to keep leaders on all levels focused on this issue. … It’s impossible for any of us to say that we are untouched by this opioid crisis and that’s why it’s going to take all of us to deal with it,” Yarmuth added.

A member of the task force, Emily Walden, a national coordinator for FED UP! Coalition to End the Opioid Epidemic, said the federal response to the drug crisis had been ineffective because of the influence of the pharmaceutical industry in politics. Walden noted that Purdue Pharma was fined $600 million in 2007 for misleading the public about the addiction risks of OxyContin, but in 2015 the Federal Drug Administration still approved the drug for use among kids as young as 11 as long as the company promised not to market it to children.

“It ridiculous. The root cause of this epidemic started with our federal government. Until the FDA changes its policies, we are at risk for an epidemic of this proportion for years. It can be something else years from now. They allow these drug companies to market these drugs the way they do, they put no restrictions on them,” she said.

Emily Walden, National Coordinator for Fed Up! Coalition to End the Opioid Epidemic, speaks at the 2017 International Overdoes Awareness Day rally in Jefferson Park. | Courtesy

Walden got involved in the fight against opioid abuse after her son died in 2012 after using the narcotic Opana ER. She spoke out against Opana before an FDA advisory committee last year, and it was pulled from the market by the manufacturer a few months ago. Despite her success, Walden said she would not stop fighting until there is greater federal oversight over drug companies.

This Friday is International Overdose Awareness Day and Walden has helped to organize rallies across the country to protest the federal response to the drug crisis. The Louisville rally will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Jefferson Park on the corner of 6th and Jefferson streets. Last year, the event drew more than 100 people.

Metro Councilman David Yates, D-25, and Attorney General Andy Beshear, a candidate for governor, are scheduled to speak. Although both are Democrats, Walden said both parties have been lacking when it comes to managing the current crisis.

“For six years, I’ve been going to Washington, D.C. (Former President Barack) Obama did not speak about this until his final year in office. (President Donald) Trump started speaking about it, which gave a lot of hope, but there has been no action behind it. They are failing us,” she said.

Eva Stone, the District Health Coordinator for Jefferson County Public Schools, also gave a short presentation to the opioid task force meeting about the impact the addiction epidemic is having on schools. Stone said more than 40 percent of JCPS students miss more than 10 percent of school each year because of problems at home.

JCPS is participating in the Kentucky Incentive for Prevention Survey so it can collect data on how drugs, alcohol, bullying and violence are affecting its students. This is the first year JCPS has taken part in the statewide study that has been conducted since 2008. Stone said the state statistics would be available to the public, but she was not sure yet if the local school district would release its own findings.