PRESTONSBURG — Several hundred people, including many high-ranking leaders from across the state, braved the threat of wintry weather to attend the Bluegrass Policy Forum on Substance Abuse at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park Monday night.
Operation UNITE held the event as a fundraiser for the agency’s drug treatment voucher program. The dinner raised $75,000, which was more than doubled when Kentucky River Properties presented UNITE with a check for $100,000 more.
The highlight of the $200-a-plate dinner was a roundtable discussion featuring U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers; Gov. Steve Beshear; state Sen. Robert Stivers, who many believe will be the next Senate president; House Majority Flood Leader Rocky Adkins; and state Sen. Brandon Smith. The discussion was moderated by KET’s Renee Shaw.
While each of the guests addressed the victories won, challenges fought and actions yet to be taken in the state’s decade-old battle against prescription painkiller abuse, it was Adkins who set the stage for how important the issue is to Kentucky.
“This issue is allowing a generation of people to be destroyed — our families, our kids, our friends, our neighbors,” Adkins said. “Now, look here, folks. We’re not talking about a bunch of thugs, here. We’re talking about good people. We’re talking about people who got addicted for some reason I can’t describe or you can’t describe, either, but it’s happening.
“I mean, it’s happening to people who were raised in good families,” Adkins continued, his voice rising in volume and urgency. “It’s happening to people who were taught right from wrong. It’s happening to people who were valedictorians in high school. It’s happening to people who were 4.0 students. It’s happening to our children. It’s happening to our neighbors. It’s happening to this person that’s worked hard all of their life on a construction job and hurt their back and ended up getting addicted to prescription drugs.
“And we all know that’s exactly what is going on. We’re not talking about bad people, here. We’re talking about people who are our children, our friends and our neighbors, people who need help. People who, as Greg [Stumbo] said, every family has been affected in some shape, form or fashion.”
Rogers noted that despite calls for alarm about the problem of prescription painkiller abuse, the issue has not made a very large blip on the national policy radar.
“The Centers for Disease Control has said prescription drug abuse is a national epidemic, and yet, we don’t see the national attention or shock that those words engender,” Rogers said in his opening remarks. “And yet, when I see the bipartisan panel that has assembled here, and this wonderful crowd that has come from all parts of Kentucky and elsewhere, it gives me some hope that the message is getting through that we’ve got a problem as a country and as a people.”
Stivers underscored Rogers’ assessment of a lack of national concern.
“In the late-’70s, early-’80s, the CDC defined HIV as being a national epidemic,” Stivers said. “In the state of Kentucky, since that declaration, about 2,500 people have died [of AIDS]. Half that many last year died of drug overdoses in the state of Kentucky.”
During his remarks, Stumbo said the drug problem cannot be solved simply by locking up offenders.
“As attorney general, I knew how to put these folks in jail,” Stumbo said. “[Commonwealth’s Attorney] Brent Turner knows how to put them in jail. [24th Circuit Commonwealth’s Attorney] Anna Melvin knows how to put them in jail … But the truth is, we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this situation. And just as quick as this part of the supply chain stops or dries up, they’ll find another way to get them in here. It’s just a supply-and-demand thing …
“But we have to have a treatment and education component, if we are going to, as a society, work our way out of the situation.”
All of the speakers agreed that a new anti-drug law passed in the last session, House Bill 1, will be effective and must not be repealed or watered down. The measure, which, among other things, requires all Kentucky doctors to use the state KASPER prescription tracking database, has begun attracting criticism recently, over concerns it is hurting patients with legitimate needs in an effort to fight those who are abusing the system.
Beshear trumpeted what he said were signs of success in the program, saying 10 pain clinics in the state have closed their doors, rather than comply with the new regulations. At the same time, he said, 11 new clinics are seeking licensure with the intent of complying with the law. He also praised the Board of Medical Licensure for a new crackdown on unscrupulous doctors, noting that the board had pursued investigations against 33 doctors over the past six months, after investigating only 18 such cases in all of 2011.
“The new law has improved the board’s ability to review the practices, and the few bad apples are starting to be eliminated,” Beshear said, to a round of applause.
Beshear conceded that some “tweaks” would be necessary, but only tweaks and not wholesale changes.
“Let me tell you something: The rules and regulations that they’re complaining about were written by physicians,” Beshear said. “They were written by the Board of Medical Licensure, for the most part.”
Stivers said a lot of the opposition to the new law is based on misinformation.
“When you hear things like, ‘Well, you have to have a urine test before you get a presciption,’ that’s false,” Stivers said. “There’s tremendous misinformation about this. You don’t have to have this type of test for a prescription, unless you’re going to get a prescription for a narcotic that will extend past 90 days.”
Stumbo said the state another area the state needs to address is the shortage of drug treatment beds. He cited figures saying the state has 2,000 spots in drug treatment centers, but has between 250,000 and 500,000 people who need help.
“It’s going to take funding, and that’s the next critical step — a constant source of dedicated funding,” Stumbo said. “The General Assembly needs to provide for a constant source of dedicated funding, so that we can build the treatment facilities and engage in the long-term educational programs that will ultimately solve our problem. But it is not a simple solution. It is not a quick fix. It’s not a short fix. It’s a long-term solution.”
Smith concluded the remarks by pointing out those most affected by the drug problem. He said he got involved in the fight against drug abuse after watching his community, Hazard, become “ground zero” for the prescription epidemic.
“It’s one thing to wave at the bus as it goes by, but it’s an entirely different view when you’re on the bus,” Smith said. “In our area, ground zero, we see the unintended victims. And by unintended victims, I mean the children.”