A Window into the Opioid Crisis in Kentucky

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Methadone is dispensed at NYK Med in Covington, Kentucky. Photo by Tom Martin

NLC's Jim Brooks shares an insightful and personal account of his recent trip to Kentucky with the National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic.

How do you take stock of human tragedy? Maybe it is wrong even to try. In a world overrun with numbers, is it still possible to understand suffering through statistics?

A few days ago, I learned first-hand the practical consequences of the opioid epidemic in northern Kentucky. I now have some faces to accompany numbers.

NKY Med, a northern Kentucky methadone clinic, serves 1,500 patients each day. They open before sunrise so that men and women going to work can receive their medication without fear of being late to work. Later in the morning, there is a time slot reserved for pregnant women.

The clinic is a busy place. Clients come with their children. The line moves purposefully as each dose is dispensed. The faces vary but all seem intense and focused, but also serene.

There is no shame here. The clinicians are business-like, yet attentive. Patient and care-giver get to know one another. These folks are in it for the long-haul. Methadone treatment lasts years. It may last a lifetime.

Those who walk through the doors of NKY Med are the lucky ones. Although it’s a for-profit clinic, the medication plus counseling plus peer networking — all paid for out of pocket — offers a haven in the midst of a region beaten down by opioid overdose deaths. 

Members of the City-County National Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic meet inmates in a peer-assisted treatment program at the Kenton County Detention Center. (Tom Martin)

Strangely enough, some other lucky people are not far away. They are the 107 men and women in the six-month substance abuse treatment program at the Kenton County Detention Center. To spend time with and talk to these men and women is to know the face of hope.

In an open plan dormitory absent cells or bars, the men gather together. The group huddle at the close of their morning talk-therapy session has all the feel of a college football practice session. They are young and old, mostly white. But they do not chafe or hang their heads when their day is interrupted by our band of well-intentioned city and county officials. With loud voice and clear eyes they welcome us. They talk to us. In this small space, for these few minutes, they share the hope of this facility’s extensive, complex, and interconnected addiction treatment program. A program that is both cost effective and medically appropriate.

A door to a treatment room at the Kenton County Detention Facility in northern Kentucky. (Tom Martin)

In the days that followed I discussed what we saw at the clinic and the detention center with the city and county leaders in attendance. All are knowledgeable about the opioid crisis in their community, and all are devoted to finding answers. They all have been inside lots of jails in their roles as policy makers and planners. But this time, instead of beds counted, guard salaries allocated, and federal reimbursements accounted for, they too have faces and names to carry home.

The National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic will prepare a report with a set of recommendations and best practices to help local governments serve their communities. It was the preparation for that report that brought the task force to northern Kentucky, and the men and women serving on the task force will help to write this report.

I can only hope that by bearing witness to their determination to manage and eventually overcome addiction, all of us in some small way have contributed to a better outcome.

About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

James Brook
NLC’s Director for City Solutions