New reports demonstrate the need for Kentucky leaders to continue fight against substance use disorder crisis

New data on Kentucky’s substance use disorder crisis reveals a mix of both positive and negative developments. 

On the one hand, a report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy shows that drug overdose deaths declined in 2022, following several years of a steep upward trend. On the other hand, preliminary survey data from the federal government shows that substance use disorder may be affecting more Kentuckians than at any other point in recent history. Both of these new sets of information arrive as a May 2023 report from the Kentucky Chamber Center for Policy and Research urges policymakers to grapple with the workforce impacts of the substance use disorder crisis. 

The report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP) offers welcome news in the fight against drug overdose deaths. For 2022, ODCP reports 2,135 drug overdose deaths. While this remains an unacceptably high number, it’s a 5 percent decline from the 2,250 deaths reported in 2021 and the first drop since 2018. Between 2012 and 2021, overdose deaths in the Commonwealth increased by 118 percent. Fentanyl was linked to 72.5 percent of drug overdose deaths in 2022. 

“For the first time in four years, Kentucky has seen a decrease in drug overdose deaths, representing a 5% reduction since 2018,” the new report states. “While 23 states reported fewer overdose deaths in 2022, Kentucky was one of only eight states that reported decreases of 100 or more deaths compared to 2021.”

As welcome as news of declining overdose deaths is, another set of data shows that SUD prevalence among Kentucky adults may be at an all-time high. An annual survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, publishes estimates of SUD prevalence in all 50 states. Preliminary estimates for 2021 show 589,000 Kentucky adults meeting the criteria for SUD, a sharp uptick from the 266,000 reported in 2019. No data is available for 2020.  

It should be stressed that this data is preliminary, survey-based, and covers 2021, a year which also saw an increase in overdose deaths from the previous year. Data for 2022 is not yet available. 

How should Kentucky business leaders and policymakers interpret this information? 

“Ultimately, all this new information stresses the need to continue working aggressively to address the Commonwealth’s substance use disorder crisis and leaning into policies and solutions that we know are effective,” said Dr. Charles Aull, Executive Director of the Kentucky Chamber Center for Policy and Research. “Declining overdose deaths is a positive development, but we need to look at a range of different inputs and data and be sensitive to long-term trends. Experts on this issue frequently remind us that this will be a long-haul challenge.”

As highlighted by Working Towards Recovery, a new report from the Kentucky Chamber Center for Policy and Research, SUD is not only a major public health and safety crisis but also a lead driver of Kentucky’s workforce challenges. 

“Kentucky has one of the lowest rates of workforce participation in the nation, which serves to limit the state’s potential for attracting high-quality jobs and investment,” the report says. “Numerous factors contribute to Kentucky’s low workforce participation rate, but one of the most significant is the prevalence of substance use disorder.” 

Research highlighted by the report shows SUD is a leading cause of falling workforce participation nationwide, with opioid use accounting for as much as 43 percent of the decline among men and 25 percent among women. In Kentucky, the opioid epidemic may have reduced the state’s total workforce by 55,000 adults. 

Working Towards Recovery points out that Kentucky business leaders and policymakers have actively pursued important solutions to the SUD crisis in recent years. This includes the Fair Chance Academy established by the Kentucky Chamber Foundation’s Workforce Recovery Program as well as impactful legislation by the Kentucky General Assembly such as new diversion programs, expungement, fentanyl test strips, recovery housing, and increased investment in the state’s treatment and recovery infrastructure. 

New information on drug overdose deaths and SUD prevalence, however, underscore the need for state leaders to continue leaning into impactful solutions and demonstrate a long-term commitment to overcoming SUD challenges in the Commonwealth.

About the Author

Charles Aull
Senior Policy Analyst at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce

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