The road-funding squabble between Gov. Steve Beshear and Senate President David Williams got more attention in last week’s special legislative session but the last-minute compromise on prescription drug abuse may have more potential impact on the everyday lives of people other than politicians. Beshear, who signed the bill Tuesday, said it puts pill pushers on notice that they’re running out of time to ply their trade in Kentucky.
Pain pills, along with synthetic narcotics, are the recreational drug du jour because they are relatively available, legally so in some cases. Users don’t have to buy the stuff from dealers on back streets when they can get prescriptions from cooperative doctors or “pain clinics” or just raid the family medicine cabinet as some young people do. Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton says it’s so bad that burglars often pass up the electronic gadgetry they formerly targeted and head straight for the pill stash. That’s one reason local police and the Franklin County Health Department are joining in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day Saturday. Participants who turn over their unused prescriptions to the health department or Kentucky State Police Post 12 will receive notices they can post in their windows at home to let criminals know they’ve removed the temptation.
The legislative compromise, which came late in a session that took too long and cost too much, may actually have improved on the original bill. Some lawmakers were uncomfortable with the proposal to put the attorney general in charge of the KASPER monitoring system, fearing that would subject doctors to excessive political oversight. The House supporters also wanted every physician in Kentucky to pay $50 a year toward funding for KASPER. Under the compromise, the fee goes away and control of KASPER remains the responsibility of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, although it’s possible the attorney general may gain more authority through administrative channels.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who preferred his original plan, said the approved version can be amended later, if necessary. We hope and believe that most doctors take enough pride in their professional integrity to make additional oversight unnecessary. Despite all the rhetoric about “pill pushers in white coats,” public opinion surveys have shown people trust physicians a good deal more than they trust politicians. Savvy practitioners have a sixth sense that tells them which patients actually need pain medication and which are out to game the system.
As tragic as prescription drug abuse is – it’s estimated three Kentuckians die every day because of it – denial of medicine to patients who suffer from chronic or acute pain could be an even greater tragedy. The medical profession and law enforcement must cooperate to find the right equilibrium.
They’ll need help from patients, too. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says about 16 million Americans reported using a prescription drug for nonmedical reasons in the previous year, as of 2010. NIDA urged patients to ask their doctors and pharmacists more questions about the addictive properties of medications they’re taking, adhere to prescription limits, keep all medicines secured and properly dispose of leftovers.
Pain pills have the power to make life bearable or to end it prematurely. The new law should be used to curtail the tragedies without unnecessarily hindering access to pain relief for those who need it.