WKYT investigates | Opioid prescription rates in Ky. are still the highest in the country

Editor’s note: At the end of this story you can find resources to help you or a loved one locate and access treatment.

HAZARD, Ky. (WKYT) – Despite progress being made on many fronts in the fight against opioid misuse and abuse, Kentucky’s opioid prescription rates remain among the highest in the nation, according to show the numbers

[INTERACTIVE MAPS | State- and county-level opioid dispensing rates]

Opioid dispensing rates have declined overall and have steadily declined from a national rate of 46.8 opioid prescriptions dispensed per 100 people in 2019 to a rate of 39.5 in 2022 (the most recent year for which data is currently available), according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Kentucky Opioid Dispensing Rates, 2019-2022:
    • 2019: 72.4
    • 2020: 67.8
    • 2021: 65.7
    • 2022: 61.6
  • US National Opioid Dispensing Rates, 2019-2022:
    • 2019: 46.8
    • 2020: 43.2
    • 2021: 42.0
    • 2022: 39.5

However, despite policies put in place over the past decade, including tighter restrictions on highly addictive medication and limiting how much patients can get at one time, Kentucky’s rate currently ranks fifth highest of the country and is far above. the national rate, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Higher Opioid Dispensing Rates in 2022:
    • Alabama: 74.5
    • Arkansas: 72.2
    • Louisiana: 65.6
    • Mississippi: 64.0
    • Kentucky: 61.6
  • Lower Opioid Dispensing Rates in 2022:
    • Hawaii: 24.3
    • California: 25.6
    • Minnesota: 27.7
    • New Jersey: 28.0

This is a real challenge across our country, said Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. It’s a real challenge here in Kentucky.

Ingram praised steps taken by states over the past 12 years that have significantly reduced the number of opioids prescribed. He pointed to changes implemented in a 2012 special session on the use of opioids for chronic pain that reduced the number of units prescribed by 100 million doses the following year. Further steps in 2017 established a dosage level of only three days for acute pain.

[FACT SHEET | Kentuckys Oversight of Opioid Prescribing and Monitoring of Opioid Use]

Still, Ingram said he’s a little concerned that Kentucky’s distribution rate remains well above the national rate. He attributes the higher dispensation rates in Kentucky and other nearby states to a regional health problem.

Our people, like the people of Mississippi, West Virginia and Tennessee, are not the healthiest in the country, he said. We have a lot of chronic diseases, a lot of heart disease, a lot of diabetes, cancer. All of this, I believe, contributes to this higher prescription rate.

Ingram said his office has worked closely on opioid management with hospital and primary care industry associations. These efforts are ongoing and fruitful, he said.

We’ve got some good stuff, Ingram said, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Several counties in Kentucky have some of the highest rates of opioid dispensing of any locality in the country. In 2022, Perry County had the third highest nationally; it was 270.1, according to CDC data, which was eight times the national rate.

Perry County had the fourth highest opioid dispensing rate in the country in 2021, 2020 and 2019.

Right now, prescription opioids aren’t considered the main driver of drug overdoses, but they do contribute to opioid-related deaths, according to the CDC.

However, a study by the National Institutes of Health found that [c]country-level opioid dispensing rates are directly associated with individual-level prescription opioid misuse, frequency of misuse, and dependence.

The initial avalanche of pills in the region, before much was publicly known about the pills’ addictive qualities, has been blamed for igniting the opioid crisis.

Many states are now getting their share of billions of dollars in settlements with companies accused of fueling the opioid epidemic. The Kentucky Opioid Reduction Advisory Commission is in the process of figuring out how to distribute the communities’ share of these settlements.

[RELATED COVERAGE | WKYT Investigates and Bridging the Great Health Divide]

Advocates have made progress in the fight against the opioid crisis, although experts say the number of lives lost remains too high.

Kentucky’s overdose deaths fell in 2022 — the states’ first reduction since 2018.

But overall, overdose deaths have been trending upward for decades.

In 2000, the state recorded 246 drug overdose deaths. That number nearly doubled in 2003, and by 2010 had approached 1,000. In 2021, overdose deaths exceeded 2,000 for the year. The 2022 total of 2,135 was a five percent drop compared to 2021.

Ingram says 160,000 units of naloxone, a life-saving opioid overdose reversal agent, were dispensed last year.

In 2022, Kentucky was tied for the third-highest naloxone dispensing rate, with a rate more than double the national rate of 0.5, according to CDC data.

  • Higher Naloxone Dispensing Rates in 2022:
    • Arkansas: 1.7
    • New Mexico: 1.4
    • Rhode Island: 1.1
    • District of Columbia: 1.1
    • Kentucky: 1.1
  • Lower Naloxone Dispensing Rates in 2022:
    • Texas: 0.2
    • New Hampshire: 0.2
    • South Dakota: 0.2
    • Georgia: 0.2

Access to treatment has also become easier as its availability has expanded.

At a news conference last June covering the states’ latest overdose death report, Gov. Andy Beshear cited a 50 percent increase in the number of drug treatment beds in Kentucky since he took office in end of 2019.

Kentucky’s 2022 dispensing rate for buprenorphine, an FDA-approved drug used to treat opioid use disorder, was also among the highest in the nation, more than four times the national rate of 4.9.

  • Higher Buprenorphine Dispensing Rates in 2022:
    • West Virginia: 27.2
    • Vermont: 25.5
    • Kentucky: 23.6
    • Maine: 17.8
  • Lower Buprenorphine Dispensing Rates in 2022:
    • Iowa: 1.3
    • Texas: 1.4
    • California: 1.6
    • Hawaii: 1.8

It’s not like it used to be, said Chasity Combs, a peer support specialist at The Rebound Center in Hazard, where she works to help people in the same community where she was born, raised and, for 25 years, struggled. .

Combs, once addicted to heroin and meth, was at one point committed by herself to The Rebound Center.

When it’s a small town, most of them knew me before, he said. I think my job here is just to give them hope.

Combs said prescription opioid pills aren’t as widely available now as they once were, but they’re seeing other drugs fill the hole left behind.

Now it’s more heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, he said. And now, the prescription pills that you can buy, you have to worry about them being pressed and having fentanyl in them as well.

That’s why advocates know their work remains as important as ever, even as the scourge they fight continues to evolve.


If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, the KY HELP call center can connect you to treatment. Named 1-833-8-KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357).

You can also find treatment programs near you online by going to findhelpnowky.org.

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