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Answers to Region's Heroin Crisis Not Found in National Drug Czar's Visit to Covington with McConnell

The rare opportunity to host both the United States Senate Majority Leader and the Director of National Drug Control Policy in a region hammered by a growing and widespread heroin epidemic could have offered new insights and new hope to combat it.

The joint appearance by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and White House Drug Czar Michael Botticelli in Covington on Thursday did not, however.

While acknowledging the region's problem and introducing a White House official to it at a tour of St. Elizabeth Hospital prior to their semi-public appearance could prove to be beneficial down the road, how was not immediately clear.

There are no new federal funds to announce and no specific plan to help Northern Kentucky deal with the scourge that has resulted in escalating overdoses, petty criminal activity, and danger on the streets as high or intoxicated drivers crashed into 3 different Covington buildings over the past two weeks and another passed out in a fast food drive-through in Newport on Wednesday prompting a search for his passenger that fled the scene. Similar occurrences are happening daily all over Northern Kentucky. The Kenton County Grand Jury report released Thursday showed 9 new indictments on heroin charges. In Taylor Mill this week, police said that they have 3 to 5 arrests each week related to heroin charges. 

"I have plenty of differences with the administration, as you may know, but I'm here with the Director of Drug Control Policy because this is something that is beyond partisan debate," McConnell told the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce at a ticketed event inside the posh Metropolitan Club atop the RiverCenter towers.

By the event's end, however, McConnell did offer a taste of partisanship, expressing his belief that the Senate is operating more effectively now that he is in charge.

The 30-year veteran of the Senate also briefly discussed some of the statistics that have landed Northern Kentucky as the epicenter of the opioid crisis facing the nation, and Appalachian states in particular. "Because of the magnitude of heroin in Northern Kentucky I thought it was a good idea to focus on this issue," McConnell said. "In Northern Kentucky, we are at the epicenter of the state's heroin problem." He noted St. Elizabeth Hospital overdose patients tripling in number from 2011 to 2014.

26 newborns at the hospital were diagnosed with drug withdrawal four years ago. In 2014, that number swelled to 128.

"About a thousand Kentuckians lose their lives to overdoses every year. To put that in perspective, that's more people being lost than in car crashes in Kentucky on an annual basis," McConnell said.
 
The answer to the problem? Unclear.
 
Both McConnell and Botticelli, however, were complimentary of all of the various plans being developed by separate agencies in Northern Kentucky and thanked the Chamber for its having made the heroin battle a priority. "I don't know of another Chamber taking this on in their community," said Botticelli, also a recovering addict.
 
"The entire country is feeling the impact of the opioid epidemic," the drug czar said. "I'm here today because anyone interested in the long term future of the economy of this region must be invested in the long term health of the people in this region."
 
One of the biggest threats to economic vitality, Botticelli said, is the health of the workforce. 1,049 people died of drug overdoes in Kentucky in 2013. "The death rate is much higher here in Kentucky than the national average. There are 23.7 deaths per 100,000 versus 13.8 in the rest of the country."
 
"This is not just a Kentucky problem, this is an Appalachian problem. This is an American problem and it threatens our competitiveness."
 
Though McConnell and Botticelli took just three questions from the media following the event, the drug czar listened to several questions from those in attendance, the most compelling from Emily Walden, of Louisville, whose son would have been 24 on Thursday had he not died of a prescription drug overdose while on a camping trip.  

What will the federal government do about the number of prescription drugs that flood the market, she asked. "Big Pharma created this mess. They created this heroin epidemic so when is the FDA going to put American lives before the paychecks of Big Pharma?"

"I understand your concern," Botticelli responded. "The FDA has taken a number of actions. There are a lot of people in this country who need access to pain meds but still, someone is prescribing these and we want to make sure at the prescription level, at the time of prescription, only people who need these meds are getting them and people are monitoring them."

He said the federal government is also investigating non-abusive pain medicines and better pain management protocols.

When Kentucky changed its laws to combat its widespread pill addiction problem, users turned to the cheaper, and often more dangerous, heroin.
 
The seriousness of the current situation, particularly in Northern Kentucky, was not lost on either Senator McConnell or Director Botticelli, but if new answers were wanted on Thursday, that didn't happen. 
 
"Every life is worth saving so we need to do everything we can," Botticelli said.
 
The local community, local governments and agencies, the Chamber, and civic & activist groups will continue to carry the heavy load in the battle against heroin.

"I haven't met a family that hasn't been impacted by substance abuse," Botticelli said. "We need to show people that there is hope on the other side. I felt ashamed in admitting I have a problem, but also in not understanding there was this incredibly happy life on the other side."

Kentucky will be armed with tougher anti-heroin laws and access to local option needle exchanges (something Botticelli supports) thanks to a bill passed and signed in Frankfort earlier this year. Locally, the Kenton County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office is also working to gain more treatment options for heroin-related defendants and the Campbell County Jail is expanding to offer more treatment options to incarcerated addicts.

Story & photo by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News