Tougher drug controls get bipartisan support in Kentucky legislature

bestep@herald-leader.comFebruary 6, 2012 

FRANKFORT — Signaling their resolve to try to beat back rising prescription-drug abuse in Kentucky, state officials and lawmakers from both parties gathered Monday to tout proposals aimed at reducing improper prescribing.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said they were confident the legislature would approve legislation to try to cut overprescribing.

Prescription abuse has affected so many families that the issue transcends partisan politics, officials said at a news conference.

"It's not about who gets credit for this," Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said of efforts to curb abuse. "This is about Kentucky families who are suffering."

Abuse of powerful pain pills and other prescription drugs is on the rise nationally, but Kentucky has one of the worst levels in the nation — 26 percent higher than the national average among 18- to-25-year-olds, for instance, Gov. Steve Beshear said at Monday's news conference.

The problem hurts families; drives up health care, prison and other costs; hinders businesses, and kills people, officials said.

"Prescription-drug abuse is wasting away the future of the commonwealth of Kentucky," Beshear said.

Overdose deaths are estimated at nearly 1,000 a year — more than the number of people killed in vehicular crashes — though many police think the number actually is far higher.

There are several bills aimed at trying to cut the flow of pills, perhaps most notably House Bill 4 and Senate Bill 42.

SB 42, sponsored by Higdon and Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, would place new controls on pain clinics, including licensing standards and a rule that they be owned by doctors.

Authorities say they see a problem with some clinics in Kentucky owned by business people, who pressure doctors they employ to write prescriptions improperly to generate cash.

Police said the state has seen a growing problem during the past two years with so-called "pill mills" — offices where doctors write prescriptions for addicts and drug traffickers, often with cursory or no examinations.

HB 4, sponsored by Stumbo and others, also would require that pain clinics be owned by doctors but takes a much broader approach.

It would give Attorney General Jack Conway's office more power to investigate potential overprescribing, for instance, as well as authority to push boards that regulate prescribers to go after licensees suspected of acting improperly.

It would allow the office to use the state's electronic system to track prescriptions — known by the acronym KASPER —— to search for suspected overprescribing, and it would require much wider use of the system by doctors and others.

Doctors and other prescribers can use the system to see if patients are getting prescriptions from other providers, called doctor shopping.

However, fewer than a third of the state's doctors use KASPER.

Crystal Copley, who lost her nurse's license because of an addiction to drugs that she started taking for back pain, said that if doctors had checked to see that she was getting prescriptions from others, they wouldn't have written her additional orders for pills.

"It's really hard when you have doctors that so freely prescribe them because they don't understand that we're going to different ones," Copley said.

Copley, 34, of Louisville, said she got treatment, has been clean 13 months and is working to restore her license.

"Any step to prevent more overdoses ... ," she said at the news conference before becoming emotional.

Stivers talked at the news conference about three contacts he's had since the legislative session started in early January, including from a man whose son died of an overdose.

Prescription abuse is "the worst problem this state has," said Stivers, who vowed to support legislation to cut abuse.

Representatives of the Kentucky Medical Association attended the news conference, and the KMA issued a statement later saying it has long advocated an end to prescription abuse and would be involved in the legislative effort to tackle the problem.

The KMA wants a number of changes in KASPER, including making it easier to use and to get reports more quickly.

The organization is still reviewing HB 4, so it is too soon to say whether doctors will object to any of the proposals in it, said Cory W. Meadows, a spokesman.

Stumbo said the plan would be to combine the various proposals on prescription abuse into one bill.

The measures will help cut into the problem, but the state also will need more prevention and treatment programs, Stumbo said.

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