Ky Voices: Bill will help fight pill abuse epidemic

Attorney General Jack Conway stands by as Crowd gathers at the Frankfort Convention Center for the Democratic election party  on Tuesday November 8, 2011 in Frankfort, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Attorney General Jack Conway stands by as Crowd gathers at the Frankfort Convention Center for the Democratic election party on Tuesday November 8, 2011 in Frankfort, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

Kentucky is the fourth-most medicated state in the country and a recent study shows prescriptions for pain pills have increased in 118 of Kentucky's 120 counties. The issue is finally getting the attention of federal lawmakers and policymakers, and we must act now as a commonwealth and country to curb this epidemic.

In Kentucky, we lose more than 1,000 people a year to prescription pill overdoses, which is more than auto accident deaths. The most prevalent drugs in overdose cases weren't cocaine or heroin — they were Xanax and oxycodone. This epidemic shatters families and fuels crime.

It's not just an Eastern Kentucky problem; it has touched almost every Kentucky family, including my own.

Studies indicate that prescription pills are the fastest-growing area of abuse among high school students, with one in five teens admitting using prescription pills for an off-label purpose. That's why I launched a campaign to educate high school and middle school students about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. I travel Kentucky with two mothers who lost their children to overdoses because I refuse to lose another generation to this addiction.

For some time, Florida fueled prescription pill abuse in Kentucky because it allowed pain clinics to operate freely, had no limit on dispensing, and had no prescription drug monitoring program like we have here in Kentucky with KASPER. At one point, our officers believed 60 percent of the pills on Kentucky streets were from Florida.

At one clinic raid in Florida, police seized 1,700 medical records — 1,100 patients were from Kentucky. That's what we in law enforcement call a clue.

The landscape began to change when voters elected my Republican colleague, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

She created a strike force that's cracked down on pill mills. She browbeat her governor into implementing electronic prescription drug monitoring. She's highlighted the issue of infants born into prescription drug addiction.

Two years ago, Florida was home to 97 of the nation's top 100 oxycodone prescribers. Now that's down to 13 and the number of pain clinics has been cut in half. That's progress, and we as Kentuckians should be thankful.

Bondi and I recently testified in front of a congressional subcommittee about the perils of prescription drug abuse, our efforts to shutdown pill mills and our fight to cut off the illegal pill pipeline flowing into Kentucky from Florida. Forty-eight states have passed monitoring laws, and 38 have operational systems.

Bondi and I urged the subcommittee to implement a grant program that would bring all states online with electronic monitoring and create a system where all of our states can share data. Kentucky borders seven states. If people are flying to Florida for pills, you can bet they're driving to Missouri, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Illinois.

Gil Kerlikowske, the federal drug czar, testified at the same hearing that prescription pill diversion has become his top priority. He's set a goal of reducing prescription drug abuse by 15 percent over the next 10 years.

We also need additional tools in Kentucky to keep pills from flooding our streets. House Speaker Greg Stumbo and others are working to strengthen our laws to shut down rogue clinics.

House Bill 4, which recently passed the House and arrived in the Senate, would keep entrepreneurs out of the pill mill business by requiring all pain management centers be owned by licensed medical professionals or hospitals. The bill requires our Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure to stop granting licenses to doctors who've been charged for overprescribing in other states and to immediately suspend licenses when doctors are indicted.

It also moves KASPER into my office — giving law enforcement increased access to the data. Right now, law enforcement cannot see data regarding unusual prescribing practices. That duty currently rests with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the KBML, which haven't met their duty to forward information to law enforcement when appropriate.

The KBML and the Kentucky Medical Association have given lip service to supporting this legislative effort, while trying to defeat key provisions, such as allowing law enforcement increased access to KASPER data, requiring that more doctors use KASPER before prescribing, and outlining mandatory addiction awareness training.

I am hopeful the medical community will be part of the solution and not part of the problem in the coming days — working with legislators to weed out the small percentage of doctors who are wreaking havoc in our commonwealth.

Prescription drug abuse is killing our people. Three Kentuckians will die today of prescription drug overdoses. Reach out to encourage your legislators to support sweeping prescription drug legislation, and call your congressman to support funding for nationwide prescription drug electronic monitoring.