University of Kentucky Memorial Hall | Courtesy Lexington Herald-Leader

By Linda Blackford | Lexington Herald-Leader

The University of Kentucky has been awarded an $87 million federal grant, the largest in its history, to reduce opioid deaths by 40 percent in 16 counties around the state.

The three-year grant is one of four announced Thursday by the National Institutes of Health that total $350 million. Other agencies receiving a HEALing (Helping End Addiction Long-Term) Communities Study grant are the Boston Medical Center in Massachusetts, Columbia University in New York City and Ohio State University.

Each site will partner with at least 15 communities to measure the impact of prevention, treatment and recovery interventions in hospitals, behavioral health programs, and the criminal justice system. The study will track outcomes of strategies such as providing prisoners more treatment for opioid use disorder, allowing more providers to prescribe medication-based treatment for opioid addiction and expanding the distribution of naloxone, a medication that reverses opioid overdoses.

The idea is to save lives while giving researchers valuable data about best practices for treating one of the country’s worst health crises.

In Kentucky, the grant’s principal investigator will be Sharon Walsh, director of the UK Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, who will partner with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to lead a team of 20 researchers and community partners. The 16 Kentucky counties are concentrated in central, northern and eastern portions of the state: Fayette, Bourbon, Franklin, Jessamine, Clark, Madison, Boyle, Jefferson, Knox, Floyd, Carter, Boyd, Greenup, Mason, Campbell and Kenton.

Each county had to meet certain criteria, which included having a jail, a death rate of greater than or equal to 25 opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 population, a needle exchange program, and one or more providers who offer medication-assisted therapy, such as buprenorphine, for opioid addiction.

“The goal is to show meaningful change in the overdose death rate in a short period of time and to do so in a way that can reveal what evidence-based interventions are effective in the community,” Walsh said. “’What will work? Is it distributing more naloxone? Is it educating people better about evidence-based treatment? Is it expanding access to treatment and decreasing barriers? For example, if we pay for someone to have transportation to get to their treatment program will that help them stay in treatment?”

More than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, including 1,565 in Kentucky, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

State health officials have tried to increase the amount of medication-assisted therapy available for opioid addiction, but it is not standard practice in numerous treatment centers or hospitals. Drugs such as buprenorphine can satisfy the addictive cravings of opioid use disorders, but they also can be abused or resold on the street.

NIH officials visited UK in February to assess UK’s grant application.

Research data from all four sites will be analyzed throughout the span of the grant.

“The evidence generated through the HEALing Communities Study will help communities nationwide address the opioid crisis at the local level,” said Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “By testing and evaluating interventions where they are needed the most, we hope to show how researchers, providers, and communities can come together and finally bring an end to this devastating public health crisis.”

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., supported UK’s application for the grant.

“Kentuckians in both rural and urban communities continue to endure the serious damage of substance abuse,” McConnell said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Kentucky is one of the hardest hit states, but we’re also on the forefront of the national response.”

“Kentuckians know the insidiousness of this disease better than most,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “The opioid epidemic does not discriminate by zip code, race, income, or any other demographic characteristic. 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. But there is hope. 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.”

The university’s largest previous grant was a $25 million award for math and science education in Appalachia.