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Boston Globe: Disparate states, a common horror – Kentucky’s opioid epidemic has warning, lesson for Massachusetts

PINEVILLE, Ky. — Jay Steele has seen plenty of death in this jagged slice of Appalachia. Not only is he the county coroner, he also owns a funeral home. But even Steele can be shocked by the fallout of the opioid epidemic that has ravaged this poverty-riddled pocket of shuttered coal mines.

There was the little boy in diapers, crying near the body of his great-grandfather, who had cared for the toddler because his addicted parents and grandparents could not.

There were the adult children of another dead man, racing to a pharmacy to refill his painkiller prescriptions and feed their habit while the coroner’s deputy attended to the corpse.

“Day in and day out, you see the decline of people on drugs,” said Steele, a gaunt man in an oversized black suit. “Some are just waiting to die.”

Viewed from Massachusetts, the opioid scourge here might seem like an exotic tableau from another land. But the search for solutions is something the states have in common, as is a mounting death toll from opioid overdoses: estimates of 1,087 in Kentucky and 1,256 in Massachusetts in 2014 alone.

This unlikely and tragic bond has brought together US senators from the two states — politicians who cannot agree on much of anything — to seek a common solution.

Pineville, population 1,700, is a pin-prick of a place surrounded by steep, thickly wooded hills that conjure images of Daniel Boone and other pioneers who passed through the nearby Cumberland Gap.