Prescription pill bill a step in the right direction

The dust has settled, more or less, from the recent legislative sessions and Kentucky has a new, stronger law aimed at fighting abuse of prescription painkillers.

The bill signed into law does not have everything that we — or anyone else — wanted. But it does provide some tools that will help medical as well as law enforcement professionals stem the tide of destruction.

Most importantly, the measure provides the authority and the money to help KASPER, the state's prescription drug monitoring system, reach the effectiveness intended when it was created in 1999.

The law appropriates $4 million over the next two years to upgrade and operate the system and requires all doctors prescribing these medications to use it. These are both very important and closely related.

Currently, only about one in four of Kentucky doctors who prescribe strong painkillers check with KASPER to see if the patient has alread been prescribed them elsewhere. Remarkably, almost 90 percent of those who do check change how and what they prescribe, so the usefulness is evident.

So clearly, it's important that more physicians check out what other painkillers have been prescribed for their patients, as the law provides.

But that's most helpful if the physician gets a response quickly, and that's where the appropriation comes in. Currently, with out-of-date technology, it can take several days for a doctor to get an answer. The bulk of the appropriation is intended to pay for significant technology upgrades that will allow for real-time responses. Information is power and real-time information is even more valuable for physicians who must decide how to treat a patient who complains of serious pain.

The measure also requires pain clinics to be owned by physicians licensed in Kentucky. Unfortunately, existing clinics are grandfathered in and will be allowed to continue to operate as long as they aren't guilty of violating Kentucky regulations.

One of the most controversial aspects of the proposal, which did not make it through, was to move KASPER from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to the Attorney General's office. We supported this as a critical link to law enforcement agencies, a way of extending the value of this mass of information to spot trends that could indicate illegal activity.

The law that passed gives law enforcement agencies access to some information to inform their investigations. Legislators must follow this closely to be sure that the cabinet, where the system remains, is working closely with enforcement agencies to provide them with useful and timely reports.