Politics & Government

Pence visits GOP county where Bevin is unpopular to praise governor for opioid fight

Vice President Mike Pence visits Eastern Kentucky

Vice President Mike Pence visited Eastern Kentucky with Gov. Matt Bevin to introduce Operation Coal Country and the Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program, which provides medical care to rural and underprivileged communities.
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Vice President Mike Pence visited Eastern Kentucky with Gov. Matt Bevin to introduce Operation Coal Country and the Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program, which provides medical care to rural and underprivileged communities.

Before a crowd of about 200 people Thursday in Manchester, Vice President Mike Pence touted Gov. Matt Bevin’s role in helping loosen the grip of Kentucky’s opioid crisis — an effort, he said, that will be further aided by nearly $10 million in new federal grant money.

Pence, a former Republican governor of Indiana and personal friend of Kentucky’s Republican governor, praised Bevin’s diligence in attacking a crisis that killed 1,247 Kentuckians in 2018, five of whom were in Clay County. Overall, the state’s overdose death rate declined 15 percent from 2017.

“Over the past two-and-a-half years, we’ve made progress,” Pence said. “Thanks to the strong leadership of your governor and strong support of the leaders in the legislature and in the national Congress, we’ve provided all new resources to Kentucky and states across this country.”

He commended Bevin for expanding access to drug treatment and the availability of the opioid overdose reversal medication known as naloxone, and supporting a bill passed last year by the General Assembly that places a three-day limit on opioids prescribed for acute pain.

The vice president delivered his remarks at a satellite campus of Eastern Kentucky University in Clay County. It’s his third visit to Kentucky this year as Bevin faces a tough reelection battle with Attorney General Andy Beshear.

Voters in the southeastern Kentucky county threw their full weight in 2016 behind Republican President Donald Trump, but their support for Bevin has been tepid. In the May primary, Bevin earned just 25 percent support against his opponent, state Rep. Robert Goforth, R-East Bernstadt.

To help bolster his campaign, Bevin is linking himself closely with Trump.

Some Republicans in the region said Thursday that Trump’s support won’t be enough to win them over. Republicans Ben Webb, 22, and Ailenea Sexton, 25, who live in Manchester, said they’re supporting Beshear this fall because of Bevin’s marginalizing comments about teachers and his efforts to overhaul their pension system.

Both said they still plan to vote for Trump in 2020.

“We just don’t like what he’s doing with the teacher retirement system,” said Webb, whose mother taught chemistry for almost 30 years at Clay County High School before she retired in 2015.

Sexton, whose father is superintendent of Clay County schools, said there’s no way she would vote for Bevin again, and neither would “most” of the teachers she knows. Her dad declined to comment.

“I would vote for anybody before I would vote for him,” Sexton said.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Eastern Kentucky University’s Manchester Region Campus in Manchester, Ky., Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

The grant Pence announced Thursday, part of a $400 million grant awarded by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, will be dispensed to rural areas across the country to combat the opioid epidemic by providing funds to community health centers, schools and universities to expand access to treatment, Pence explained.

Kentucky’s portion will help fund roughly $750,000 in training programs through the University of Pikeville and payments of up to $167,000 for prevention and treatment services at EKU, the faith-based Grace Community Health Center, as well as treatment facilities in Whitesburg, Hazard, Prestonburg and Beattyville, Pence said.

Bevin reiterated that mitigating the opioid epidemic “has been a focus of mine ... from the moment I was elected, I said, we’ve got to tackle this head on.”

Kentucky Democrats were quick to criticize Bevin’s assertion, pointing to his efforts to limit the state’s expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. They said Bevin’s plan would cut funding to rural health clinics and blasted him for supporting a lawsuit that would allow small businesses to purchase insurance plans not in compliance with the Affordable Care Act.

Pence, who was joined by Bevin, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, also spotlighted a federal program that is temporarily providing free health care in the region.

A collaboration of the Kentucky Department for Local Government, Department for Public Health and the U.S. Dept. of Defense and U.S. Military reserve forces, the “Operation Coal Country” program is a series free pop-up health clinics this week in Clay, Jackson, Knox and Leslie counties.

Patients can receive free medical screenings, dental and optical exams and free Hepatitis A vaccines. It began Aug. 3 and wraps up Saturday. The same program last year brought care to more than 2,200 people in Lee, Owsley, Estill and Breathitt counties. So far this week, the program has served more than 800 patients and expects to provide more than $1.2 million in medical care.