There are a number of things Kentucky is known for: great basketball, the best bourbon, the fastest horses and our state's incredible natural beauty.
But sadly, the commonwealth is becoming known for something far less flattering: prescription pill abuse.
In 2010, Forbes listed Kentucky as the fourth "most medicated" state, and in the past year, we had one of the highest reports of non-medical use of painkillers, drugs like OxyContin, Lortab and Percocet.
Most alarmingly we are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of deaths from these drugs — around 82 each month — and recent data shows that drug deaths could soon eclipse traffic deaths.
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This is becoming an epidemic.
To combat the problem, I helped start the KASPER, Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting, system in 1999. This prescription pill monitoring program has been very successful in Kentucky, and has made a big difference. But there are two problems:
■ KASPER can only be successful when it is used. Right now, it is not mandatory and only three out of 10 doctors elect to use the system.
■ Other states' laws can have a major effect on Kentucky. As much good as KASPER can do, it cannot regulate pills flowing in from Florida on the Kentucky-Florida pill pipeline.
Rep. Hal Rogers recently brought attention to this problem when Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced he was going to scrap Florida's drug monitoring program. Rogers urged Scott to reconsider, because what happens in Florida does not necessarily stay in Florida. Rogers knows Florida's prescription pills are already making it up to Kentucky at an alarming rate.
It is time to do something to level the playing field. It is time to fully support NASPER, the National All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting system, a prescription monitoring program based on KASPER but on a national scale.
The program was signed into law in 2005, but was never fully funded. So effectively, NASPER exists, and can provide some grants, but the full potential of this program is not being met. We need our states working together seamlessly and efficiently to combat this problem, and NASPER is one of our best chances to do just that.
But just like we need all states to work together, we also need people from all levels to work together — public and private, local, state and national — to make a difference. And this week, with the help of R. Gil Kerlikowske, White House Director of National Drug Control Policy, we took a big first step.
With the director, we were able to get a number of stakeholders from the University of Kentucky, recovery centers like the Hope Center and Chrysalis House, state law enforcement and lawmakers in the same room.
Because much of the burden of prescription drug abuse often falls on our small towns and local law enforcement, I also invited sheriffs and representatives from Madison, Clark, Powell, Estill and Montgomery counties to be part of the conversation.
These counties provide a good cross-section of the prescription pill epidemic and what communities are doing on the local level to combat the problem.
In addition to these groups, we also have lawmakers from both parties ready to work together and take a serious look at prescription pill abuse in Kentucky. Just in the past few weeks we have seen Rogers, Rep. John Yarmuth and Sen. Mitch McConnell all weigh in on the issue.
This week's conversation was one our state desperately needed to have. We have an epidemic on our hands — stretched law enforcement, overburdened small towns, parentless children and a growing death rate. But we also have everyone at the table and ready to take a stand.
The time to take action is now.