Providing a Holistic, Community-based Approach to Substance Abuse

February 22, 2013

Providing a Holistic, Community-based Approach to Substance Abuse

By Karen Kelly, UNITE President/CEO


Prescription drug abuse is inflicting a devastating toll on families and communities across southern and eastern Kentucky, a region of Appalachia already shackled by economic and environmental obstacles.

Our commonwealth ranks as the fourth most medicated state in the nation; Kentuckians are abusing prescription painkillers at an alarming rate of about one in 15 residents. And with addiction comes death — nearly 1,000 lives (82 per month) in 2011, more than from motor vehicle crashes.

The prescription drug problem proliferated largely unchecked until early 2003, when a series of articles was published exposing the addiction and corruption associated with abuse across southern and eastern Kentucky — a problem chiefly associated with the painkiller OxyContin.

Reacting to this disturbing news, Kentucky Fifth District Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers formed Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education) to provide a holistic, community-based approach to address these problems.

UNITE works to rid communities of illegal drug use and misuse of prescription drugs through undercover narcotics investigations, coordinating treatment for substance abusers, providing support to families and friends of substance abusers, and educating the public about the danger of using drugs. Involving broad-based community representation, UNITE’s volunteer community coalitions are empowered to educate and activate individuals to no longer accept or tolerate the drug culture.

While grassroots initiatives target the most pressing local needs, UNITE provides regional support through a multi-faceted, synergistic offering of programs. These include: treatment vouchers for low-income residents, creating more than 30 Drug Court programs (an intensive alternative to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders), funding residential treatment beds, offering drug-free workplace and community education trainings, creating nearly 100 in-school anti-drug UNITE Clubs, funding a 30-member AmeriCorps program at three dozen elementary schools, and hosting a week-long summer camp for at-risk middle school youth, among others.

In 2007, UNITE was one of 12 organizations invited to participate in a White House Roundtable with

President George W. Bush to discuss the growing prescription drug abuse issue. UNITE’s ability to form partnerships and elicit proactive involvement of communities was touted as a model for the nation.

Addressing the Issues

About 59 percent of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ cases of children killed or nearly killed because of abuse or neglect in 2009-10 involved suspected substance abuse by parents or caregivers. Nationally, it is estimated that 75 percent or more of abuse and neglect cases involve substance abuse. Fueling an addiction becomes the primary focus of parents and caregivers, resulting in diversion of limited resources to drugs instead of food, clothing and other needs of their children. In addition, the impaired state of an addict can lead to harmful decisions.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that 75-80 percent of all crime is related in some way to substance abuse.

In addition, Kentucky’s medical providers are overwhelmed with drug-related incidents, while the workers’ compensation industry loses millions of dollars annually to fraud. This menace hurts the economic climate and sours a community’s quality of life.

Just as the disease of addiction impacts more than the addict, prevention involves more than simply stopping the flow of illegal drugs and diversion of prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Sure we must incarcerate the criminal element, but transforming society requires generational changes in attitude, providing nurturing environments for those seeking to rebuild their lives, along with instilling opportunity and hope.

UNITE’s approach has sought to tackle the underlying contributing causes of substance abuse and tap into the time and talents of concerned community members.

UNITE is currently in the capacity-building phase of a HHS CTG to support public health efforts intended to reduce chronic diseases, promote healthier lifestyles, reduce health disparities, and control health care spending. This program will serve 119 of the state’s 120 counties.

This fall, under the leadership of UNITE’s Medical Advisory Council with funding from an Appalachian Regional Commission grant, a series of five symposiums are planned to educate doctors and dispensers about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and how to use the state’s Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting (KASPER) system.

In order to tap the time and talent of community volunteers, UNITE has created a series of ready-to-use educational kits that trained individuals can present.

Each kit includes promotional materials, a PowerPoint presentation, and step-by-step implementation guide.

Accidental Dealer

A national study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University™ in 2011 found 46 percent of all high school students currently use addictive substances, and one in three meets the medical criteria for addiction. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 70 percent of teens obtain these drugs from family members or friends — often without their consent.

This kit educates individuals on the importance of tracking and securing your medications in the home.

UNITE recently partnered with Kentucky Employers’ Mutual Insurance (KEMI) — the state’s largest provider of workers’ compensation insurance — to provide medication lockboxes to residents.

One-Step Misery: Kentucky Meth Epidemic

With the number of methamphetamine incidents at record levels across the state, more and more innocent people are being impacted — not only emergency responders and health care workers, but on work sites, in our neighborhoods and in our schools.

The number of meth lab incidents has spiraled out of control, increasing 400 percent from 2007 to 2011, ranking Kentucky fourth in the nation. This campaign — spearheaded by Appalachia HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), UNITE, the Kentucky State Police and the Kentucky Narcotic Officers’ Association — explains the problem and why people should be concerned.

It also focuses on a possible solution: require a prescription for cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine — the only required ingredient of meth for which there is no substitute.

Addicted: A Dose of Reality

This hard-hitting program is designed to give parents and caregivers the truth about the dangers and availability of drugs. The three-part presentation combines parenting techniques, the science of addiction, and the ins and outs of trendy drugs relevant to their community.

Combining video testimonies from recovering addicts and parents of addicts, authentic information about drug addiction is packed into the presentation.

Life With a Record

Currently in production, this kit will detail the consequences of having a drug-related conviction on your record.

National Rx Drug Abuse Summit

Kentucky is not alone in facing the prescription drug problem, now categorized as an “epidemic” by CDC. Prescription drug abuse continues to be a significant and growing problem that cuts across geographical regions, age groups, social class, economic standing, occupation and ethnic background.

Guided by a National Advisory Board, UNITE coordinated the 2012 National Rx Drug Abuse Summit featuring thought-provoking presentations by 100 experts and leaders in five educational tracks: health care, advocacy and prevention, human resources, treatment and law enforcement.

More than 700 stakeholders — representing 45 states, the District of Columbia and three other countries — participated in the Summit, which included a forum with members of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse. This discussion on prescription drug abuse issues will continue with a second National Rx Drug Abuse Summit, to be held at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate in Florida on April 2-4, 2013.

Download a PDF of the story here.

For more information about Operation UNITE visit their website at To learn about the Summit visit

In 2003, Fifth District Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-Somerset) worked to create Operation UNITE, a regional anti-drug initiative empowering citizens groups and community leaders in 29 southern and eastern Kentucky counties. UNITE, which stands for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment & Education, seeks to fight the drug epidemic by expanding drug awareness and education programs to keep people from using drugs; coordinating drug treatment and outreach programs for those who are already addicted; and operating regional undercover law enforcement task forces for interdiction and prosecution of those dealing drugs. For more information contact Karen Kelly toll-free at 1-866-678-6483.