Two dozen people in Louisville overdosed on drugs Tuesday, prompting an emergency room doctor to declare a public health emergency.
Two weeks before, there were 26 overdoses in Huntington, W.Va. Then 50 overdoses in Cincinnati, followed by 12 in Mount Sterling.
On Wednesday, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, the Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul this fall, held a news conference in Louisville to chastise Paul and Congress for failing to fund the recently passed Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. It calls for improving prescription drug monitoring programs, expanding treatment for addicted prison inmates and increasing the availability of a drug that counters the effects of heroin and opioid overdoses.
“Legislation without funding is a failure,” Gray said. “You have to fund it and that hasn’t been done.”
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Earlier in the year, President Barack Obama asked Congress to provide $960 million with the act, but Congress didn’t include funding.
Gray criticized Paul, R-Bowling Green, for not voting for an amendment that would allocate about $600 million with the bill.
Paul’s spokeswoman, Kelsey Cooper, said the senator voted for a bill that would have provided $1.5 billion for addiction prevention and treatment last year. That bill was a Republican sponsored omnibus package that would have made significant changes to the Affordable Care Act and Obama vetoed it.
As the political fight over funding continues, the region’s drug abuse epidemic has become a key topic for Paul and Gray as they campaign across the state.
Kentucky had the 7th most drug overdoses per capita in 2014 and the problem has only gotten worse. In 2015, 1,248 people died from drug overdoses in Kentucky.
In Lexington, the number of overdoses increased by 70 percent from 2013 and 2015.
Gray and Paul see eye-to-eye on most of the proposed solutions: more treatment and recovery centers, more education at a local level and arming health care professionals with the tools to combat overdoses. But when the candidates talk about preventing people from getting heroin in the first place and what the federal government can do to help addicts, their positions begin to vary.
Regarding addiction treatment, Paul has focused his legislative efforts on adjusting health care policy to better provide treatment.
With the help of Sen. Ed Markey, D-MA, Paul was able to raise the cap on the number of patients that doctors are allowed to prescribe drugs that help treat people with opioid addiction.
To help stop heroin flowing into the country, Paul advocates better securing the border with Mexico.
“If it’s coming across the border, then border security has more chance of stopping the flow or stemming the tide of heroin coming into the country,” Paul said Tuesday in an interview.
Gray, however, thinks the best solution is to punish people selling drugs in the country.
“Trafficking in drugs is something that in Lexington our city police are working with the U.S. attorney on enforcement and dialing up enforcement and dialing up penalties,” Gray said.
Under federal law, people who have sold drugs to people who have died or are injured can be punished with a minimum of 20 years in prison. There has been a recent effort in Kentucky to prosecute more of those cases in federal court.
While Gray argues for strict punishment for drug dealers, he also advocates decreasing criminal penalties against users.
“Arresting ourselves out of this situation is not going to work,” Gray said. “There has to be a comprehensive approach.”
Paul called the influx of heroin one of the unintended consequences of the government’s attempts to combat prescription painkiller addiction.
“We tried really hard to stamp out OxyContin,” Paul said. “We stomped that out to a certain degree and people who were addicts shifted over from OxyContin to heroin.”
When asked if physicians should be punished for over-prescribing prescription painkillers, Gray said that the topic should be explored. Paul talked about how efforts to hold physicians accountable who over-prescribed the drugs have seen some success.
Experts have found that many of the people addicted to heroin began with prescription painkillers.
Amanda Hall was one of them.
Hall got hooked on pills when she was a teenager in Inez.
“I would need more,” Hall said. “My tolerance began to rise and I would need more of that medication.”
Eventually, she got addicted to heroin and went to prison.
“I probably would have been dead by now,” Hall said.
Instead, Hall is four years sober and a program manager at The Healing Place in Louisville, where Gray held his news conference.