Kentucky reports drop in drug overdose deaths in 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — After years of rising death tolls from a surge in drug addiction, Kentucky officials on Thursday reported the first statewide drop in drug overdose deaths since 2013.

A new report indicated that 1,333 people died from drug overdoses in 2018, down nearly 15% from a record 1,566 deaths the prior year in the bluegrass state.

The statewide decline was by far the largest in at least a decade, state officials said. In 2013, the overdose death rate fell by close to 3%, they said.

Last year's drop follows years of steady increases in the death toll, driven mostly overdoses from opioid painkillers and the prevalence of such powerful drugs heroin and fentanyl. Drug overdoses far outpace traffic crashes as a cause of death in Kentucky.

Kentucky's political leaders, from Frankfort to Washington, D.C., hailed the downturn in drug-related fatalities in the report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. But they cautioned it's just one round in a long fight, as did officials at the forefront of the anti-drug campaign.

"The numbers are trending down, but our state still faces incredible challenges," said state Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley. "This crisis claimed more than 1,300 lives last year and inflicted untold heartbreak on our families and communities."

Van Ingram, executive director of the Office of Drug Control Policy, pointed to education and treatment programs along with other "harm-reduction" efforts as factors in the lower death toll.

"We just hope that this trend will continue, and we're going to do everything we can to make that happen," Ingram said in a phone interview.

The state got another boost earlier this year when the federal government approved a Medicaid waiver that will allow drug treatment centers to open up more beds, he said.

"To me, that's going to be a game changer," he said.

Wider distribution of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone was another key factor in lowering Kentucky's overdose deaths, Ingram said.

State leaders pointed to ongoing efforts to improve access to drug treatment. Gov. Matt Bevin stressed the importance of partnerships with law enforcement and health care providers "as we allocate unprecedented resources to combat this scourge and save lives."

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who helped steer nearly $200 million in federal funds to assist in Kentucky's efforts against the drug epidemic, said he has "made the fight to save lives from the horrors of addiction and abuse a top national priority."

"With an influx of federal resources, we're bolstering Kentucky's law enforcement and treatment programs in meaningful ways," McConnell said in a statement.

Shannon Gray, program manager of the Healing Place, which provides substance abuse treatment services in Louisville and Campbellsville, said "the more education, the more treatment, the more recovery, the better."

The largest drop in fatal overdoses occurred in Jefferson County — Kentucky's most populous county — where 89 fewer people died compared to 2017, the report said. It said that Kenton, Campbell, Nelson and Jessamine counties combined for 63 fewer overdose deaths than a year ago.

The state's most lethal drug in 2018 was fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, contributing to 786 overdose deaths, the report said. It also reported an increase in deaths attributed to methamphetamine.