By Manas Mishra and Tamara Mathias
(Reuters) - U.S. health officials on Thursday said they will spend $350 million in four states to study ways to best deal with the nation's opioid crisis on the local level, with a goal of reducing opioid-related overdose deaths by 40 percent over three years in selected communities in those states.
The National Institutes of Health will award grants to research sites in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said at a news conference to unveil the plan. They will go to the University of Kentucky, Boston Medical Center, Columbia University and Ohio State University.
Prescription opioid pain treatments and drugs like heroin and the more potent fentanyl were responsible for 47,600 U.S. deaths in 2017, according to government figures, with only a small decline last year, according to provisional data.
The plan calls for the research centers to work with at least 15 communities hard hit by the crisis to measure how integrating prevention, treatment and recovery interventions can reduce overdoses.
They are expected to look at how behavioral health, unemployment and the criminal justice system contributes to the crisis, and measure the effectiveness of various prevention and treatment methods, such as distributing anti-overdose drugs to schools, police and other first responders.
"The most important work to combat our country's opioid crisis is happening in local communities," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.
"We believe this effort will show that truly dramatic and material reductions in overdose deaths are possible, and provide lessons and models for other communities to adopt and emulate," Azar said.
He said planned funding for the study will not be affected by any NIH budget cuts.
"We are in such a period of crisis that we need to know in real time what is working and what is not working," said Dr. Alysse Wurcel from Tufts Medical Center in Boston, who is a member of the opioid working group at the Infectious Disease Society of America.
The study is being carried out in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which provides support for local prevention, treatment and recovery support services.
(Reporting by Manas Mishra, Tamara Mathias and Aakash Jagadeesh Babu in Bengaluru; Editing by Bill Berkrot)