First phase of $87 million HEALing Communities Study to address opioid epidemic has touched thousands of Kentuckians

UK’s Sharon Walsh, Carrie Oser and Amanda Fallin-Bennett, along with the Clark County Health Department’s Jennifer Gulley (second from left) presented an update on community engagement in UK’s HEALing grant at the 2022 Rx and Illicit Drug Summit. (University of Kentucky photo)
Thousands of Kentuckians in eight counties have benefited from a variety of evidence based practices to address the opioid epidemic in the first phase of the $87 million University of Kentucky HEALing Communities Study . The second phase of the study will begin in July.
“As the study continues, their work will help us better understand what’s needed in each community and where to focus and ramp up efforts to best support patients to reduce opioid overdose deaths,”  Sharon Walsh, the principal investigator, told Elizabeth Chapin of UKNow. “Our goal is that the changes implemented in these communities develop into sustainable solutions for the opioid epidemic in the commonwealth and throughout the nation.”
Walsh is a professor in UK’s colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy and directs the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research.
Evidence-based practices the study team implemented with behavioral-health and criminal-justice agencies include effective delivery of medications for opioid-use disorder, overdose-prevention education and distribution of naloxone, a life-saving medication that reverses the effects of opioids. The team has also been working with various pharmacies and health care providers to implement safer opioid prescribing and dispensing, says a news release.
The study includes 16 Kentucky counties and is broken down into two waves of eight counties each. Community coalitions in each county determined what interventions to implement based on individual community need. The first wave is Boyd, Boyle, Clark, Fayette, Floyd, Franklin, Kenton and Madison counties.
Working with 146 agencies in the eight counties in the first wave, the study has:

  • Dispensed 55,147 units of naloxone to 166 locations that have so far distributed 40,243 units to individuals in high-risk populations;
  • Gave financial support for staff and transportation to 38 facilities that use medication for opioid-use disorder (MOUD);
  • Expanded capacity for MOUD treatment, as well as linkage and retention programs in criminal justice venues including sheriff’s departments, pretrial services, home incarceration, drug courts, jails and probation and parole programs;
  • Helped 38 agencies with implementation of peer-support programs and 28 agencies with care-navigation programs;
  • Gave 206 individuals with opioid-use disorder financial support to overcome barriers to medication treatment, including transportation, vehicle repairs, jail communication-service fees and utility bills;
  • Provided 16 people with housing assistance including rent and emergency housing;
  • Provided transportation assistance to link individuals to treatment and keep them in it. Through March 10, 1,531 rides to treatment programs and recovery-related appointments had been provided to 121 unique individuals for a total of 80,007 miles;
  • Installed medication receptacles at 35 pharmacies, with more than 1,400 pounds of medication incinerated to date; and
  • Led educational sessions on safer opioid prescribing and dispensing for more than 150 health-care professionals including dentists, primary-care providers and pharmacists.
The intervention also includes community engagement to assist key stakeholders in applying evidence-based practices and a communications campaign to build demand for treatment and reduce stigma toward people with opioid use disorder.

The first-wave intervention ends this summer, with the sustainability phase beginning in July. This phase is intended to build capacity to help community coalitions and partner organizations,  sustain the evidence-based practices after the study ends, efforts around community staffing and budget planning, and efforts to sustain naloxone distribution.

The second-wave intervention begins July 1 in Bourbon, Campbell, Carter, Greenup, Jefferson, Jessamine, Knox and Mason counties.  So far, the study team has had 134 meetings with 174 stakeholders and has identified 85 potential coalition members for the second wave.
Launched in 2019, the four-year study includes a multidisciplinary team of more than 25 researchers spanning seven colleges across UK, and partners with communities to implement strategies to reduce opioid deaths.
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