Saturday, September 23, 2023

Governor declares Recovery Month, says he has 'grave concerns' about opioid-settlement spending as opioid commission meets

Gov. Andy Beshear posed with members of the recovery community on Sept. 22 in the Capitol rotunda as he proclaimed September as Recovery Month in Kentucky. (Photos by Melissa Patrick) 
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

More than 200 people attended an event to mark National Recovery Month on Friday, Sept. 22 in the state Capitol, hearing a message that recovery is possible -- along with "grave concerns" from Gov. Andy Beshear about how the Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission may spend the millions coming to the state from lawsuit settlements with opioid makers and distributors.

Later that day, the commission approved nearly $14 million in 34 grants, but only by application numbers and amounts, saying the names of the grantees would not be announced until early October. 

The recovery event was opened by Dr. Katherine "Katie" Marks, commissioner of the Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities, saying Kentucky is leading the way when it comes to access to recovery, and that by working together, recovery is possible. 

"Seven out of 10 people, of adults, who have experienced substance-use or mental health conditions . . . are in recovery; they are here with us. We are those people. It reminds us over and over that recovery is not just possible, it is probable," said Marks, who ran the state Opioid Response Effort before becoming commissioner. 

Gov. Andy Beshear
Before signing a proclamation recognizing September as Recovery Month in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear touted a number of the programs in the state to help people who are in recovery or seeking recovery. He noted the addition of six more Recovery Ready Communities, bringing that number to seven.

"For the first time I can remember, we in the commonwealth have a bed for anyone ready to go into treatment," Beshear said to rousing applause. 

Beshear said that in his previous job, he sued "more opioid companies than any other attorney general in the country." He called the funds coming from settlements of those lawsuits "blood money" and said it must be spent in the "right way." 

"It is so critical that we use the hundreds of millions of dollars that we will receive in the right way to support recovery, to support treatment. And please lift your voice in the committee that is making decisions right now that I have grave concerns about," he said, referring to the opioid commission.

"When we haven't seen $10 million going into treatment, spending $40 million to support some company's private patent for a drug that the FDA will not and does not approve is not the way we ought to be spending these funds."

Beshear was referring to the proposal by the commission's chair and executive director, Bryan Hubbard, to spend $42 million of the settlement money for research to get ibogaine, a psychedelic drug that is anecdotally reported to stop withdrawal symptoms, approved for use in the United States.

Hubbard is an employee of, and the commission is housed in the office of, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the Republican nominee for governor against Democrat Beshear in the Nov. 7 election.

The commission has held two full days of public hearings on the proposal, but has not acted on it. 

Beshear said at the Capitol event, "We ought to be spending to lift up the groups that are here, that do the hard work day in and day out, and you know what, save people one life at a time. It's important that we spend every single one of these dollars right, because I saw what these dollars can be. Sometimes just a little help, just a hand up, to the folks that are already doing the hard work can unlock the potential to do so much more."

Half of the money from the settlement is going to cities and counties. Van Ingram, head of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, encouraged counties to use their money to create more Recovery Ready Communities.

"All of your communities where you live are coming into the opioid abatement dollars. I submit to you that there's no better way to spend the money than to look at the things you're missing in your communities," Ingram said to a thundering round of applause. 

Dr. Steven Stack
Health Commissioner Steven Stack opened his remarks at the recovery event by reminding people that substance abuse is a medical problem, not a moral failure. 

"People do not choose to have substance-use disorder and all of the terrible things that go along with it," Stack said. "These chemicals are powerful. They alter brain chemistry. And they impair decision-making in ways that are not human failings; they are biological realities." 

Stack wrapped up by encouraging people seeking help to use one of the many resources available in Kentucky, including;; the Kentucky Opioid Assistance and Resource Hotline at 1-800-854-6813, which is available 24/7; or the 988 suicide/crisis hotline. 

Medicaid Commissioner Lisa Lee told the story of her 55-year-old brother who died of an opioid overdose 10 years ago,. four months before Kentucky expanded Medicaid to anyone with income up to 138% of the federal poverty line. She said her brother didn't have insurance, so he didn't have access to substance-use-disorder treatment like thousands of people do now because of the expansion.

Lee encouraged he listeners to reach out to anyone they know on Medicaid and to ask them to make sure the state has their correct contact information so they don't lose coverage. Her agency has resumed its annual renewal process, following the end of pandemic rules that allowed continuous enrollment without contact for renewal.

"We want everyone who is eligible to be enrolled in Medicaid and stay on the program to get the services they need," Lee said. 

Five people talked about their recovery journey, with a common message to "recover out loud." 

Alex Elswick
The first was Alex Elswick, an assistant extension professor for substance-use prevention and recovery at the University of Kentucky, who is in long-term recovery.

"I want to make sure that I do the thing that I think is most important, which is that we recover out loud," Elswick said. "That we stand up without any shame, without any fear and say 'This is who I am. This is the problem that I struggled with. This is the way that I found help, and hopefully shine the light for someone else.'" 

He also said addiction doesn't discriminate, but recovery does.

"I see it every single day," he said. "We've created an artificial division between my friends who are in recovery and my friends who still struggle with active addiction," who he later added are just as deserving of access to resources and recovery capital. 

In closing, Elswick said, " We know that addiction is a chronic disorder. And what I've learned is that means it's a chronic disorder for me also. And that means that tonight when I leave here, if God forbid I return to use, I hope that there are very many pathways there for me and not just one. I hope that your response won't be to throw me in jail. I hope that your response won't be to punish me, to demand perfection. I hope you'll give me an opportunity."

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