Operation UNITE has been awarded a $500,000 grant to build capacity for prevention and healthy lifestyle programs across Kentucky.

This grant, announced Tuesday, Sept. 27, is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Community Transformation Grants to support public health efforts to reduce chronic diseases, promote healthier lifestyles, reduce health disparities, and control health care spending.

“Promoting healthy lifestyle choices is already an essential component of UNITE’s drug prevention and education programs,” said Karen Kelly, UNITE director. “This Community Transformation Grant will facilitate development of many partnerships so we can address, with a unified voice, risky health behaviors and associated preventable illnesses and premature death rates.”

UNITE is one of 26 grantees to receive a capacity-building award to implement changes by laying a solid foundation for community prevention efforts to ensure long-term success. The grant is expected to run for five years, with projects expanding their scope and reach over time as resources permit.

“UNITE is uniquely positioned to expand its focus because of its education and prevention programs already being provided within the 29-county Fifth Congressional District,” Kelly noted. “Through our 30 community coalitions and Medical Advisory Council, UNITE has developed a solid organizational infrastructure, a capacity building model which has been extensively field tested, and proven record for coordinating program activities with local organizations.”

Overall, HHS awarded approximately $103 million in prevention grants to 61 states and communities, reaching more than 120 million Americans. The Community Transformation Grants will support the planning and implementation of state and community projects proven to reduce chronic diseases – such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Grantees serve one of five different areas: A large county (population over 500,000), an entire state, a state minus its large counties, a tribe, or a territory.

UNITE will serve 119 counties (excluding Jefferson) through the grant. The region boosts a population of nearly 3.6 million residents, of which about half (1.8 million) live in the state’s 85 rural counties – primarily the Appalachian and Mississippi Delta regions.

“Substance abuse, especially prescription drug use, is a major threat to Kentuckians,” Kelly said, noting that 96 counties saw increased rates of prescriptions dispensed for controlled substances from 2006-08 according to data from Kentucky’s All-Scheduled Prescription Electronic Reporting (KASPER) system.

“Many of the focus areas of this grant, if not addressed early, ultimately lead to increased risk for substance abuse and mental illness disorders,” Kelly said.

“Kentucky is one of the unhealthiest states in the nation,” Kelly continued. “By collaborating with local, regional and state groups, and soliciting community feedback, we will develop a plan to increase awareness and identify systems and strategies to meet specific health and behavioral goals.”