Alex Elswick, 28, has been to more funerals than weddings because of the opioid epidemic, and, speaking at a press briefing last week, he said he was heading to another later that week, that of a friend from college who died from an overdose.

Elswick, a former addict, was speaking as the founder of Voices of Hope in Lexington, Kentucky, an organization in one of the communities targeted by a Health and Human Services (HHS) study aimed at whittling down the opioid overdose death rate by 40 % within three years.

The HEALing Communities study, part of a larger trans-agency program called Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) initiative, will be conducted in select communities in Kentucky, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts. HHS provided grants to academic institutions in the four states to partner with at least 15 communities to assess “the impact of integrating evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery interventions across primary care, behavioral health, justice and other settings in highly affected parts of the country.”

The four institutions are the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Boston Medical Center, Columbia University in New York City, and Ohio State University in Columbus.

One approach will be making medication-assisted treatment (MAT) the standard of care, something that hasn’t effectively trickled down to those most in need.

“The entire time that I was addicted I never initiated on medication for opioid use disorder because none of the health professionals I interacted with ever presented it to me as a legitimate option despite the fact the research tells me that it’s the gold standard for treating my condition,” Elswick said.

Elswick was prescribed opioids following surgery to have his wisdom teeth removed. He became addicted and later transitioned to heroin. He lived on the streets and spent time in jail, and even “graduated” from several recovery programs only to relapse again.

“HEAL is (coming) just in time for the tens of thousands of lives it’s going to save,” he said at the press briefing.

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