Legislation to fight pill mills will need to strike balance between law enforcement and medicine, panelists on TV show make clear

By Tara Kaprowy
Kentucky Health News

The legislation meant to crack down on so-called “pill mills” will turn on striking a balance between thwarting prescription drug abuse and making sure doctors and patients don’t feel their hands are tied, it became clear on statewide television Monday night.

On KET‘s “Kentucky Tonight,” Attorney General Jack Conway argued strongly for the legislation, as did state Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Dr. Shawn Jones, president of the Kentucky Medical Association, said physicians are interested in fixing the problem but don’t want legislation to be overly burdensome. State Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would not commit to either side, but did voice some concerns.
Conway said 90 Kentuckians a month die from prescription-pill overdoses, and Kentucky is the fourth most medicated state in the country. And he said the problem is expected to grow, with 80 percent of middle-schoolers saying they know someone who has used prescription pills for off-label purposes.
But Jones warned legislators should not over-reach. “When we write legislation and we try to mandate medical care, it’s very difficult,” he said. “We think primarily our role as physicians is to protect the right of the patient to relieve suffering. . . . We think we need to address this problem. How to do that is the big issue.”
Right now, all prescriptions dispensed in Kentucky are tracked through the Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting, a system known as KASPER. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services is charged with tracking disturbing trends that show up in the system and conveying those anomalies to the doctor-dominated board that licenses doctors. That is not happening, Conway said. “In my first four years in office, I’ve never gotten a referral from the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure,” he said, adding under the current system law enforcement has no way to “get at the data” unless they already have a case file opened.
House Bill 4 would put Conway’s office in charge of tracking KASPER data and allow it to track data without opening a case. It would also require pain clinics to be owned by doctors or advanced registered nurse practitioners and require doctors to use KASPER when seeing new patients and periodically thereafter. Now, only about one in four physicians have KASPER accounts, Conway said. An alternative measure, Senate Bill 98, would not shift power to Conway’s office, but would require that doctors be the owners of pain clinics.
Jones said requiring doctors to use KASPER is too heavy-handed, in part because the system does not instantly respond to doctors’ requests. Conway acknowledged the system is old and “needs to be updated,” but said Gov. Steve Beshear set aside $4.5 million in his proposed budget to do so.
Patient privacy is another consideration, since House Bill 4 would also allow county and commonwealth’s attorneys, along with law enforcement, access to KASPER data, Jones said. Jensen pointed out another concern: “You don’t want to have a chilling effect on physicians to prescribing medications on a patient. I hate to think we’re doing something where doctors are going to say, ‘I don’t want to give someone pain meds because I might be monitored and I might get in trouble.'”

Bob Talley of Bowling Green, who called in to the show and said he has chronic pain, agreed with Jensen, saying he “certainly does not want the political process to make it harder for my doctor and harder for me to get legitimate treatment.”
Though Jensen pointed out potential problems, he said he is “still in the mode where I’m learning” because he hasn’t been involved in the process of sculpting what has been proposed. “I think this is a broad bill, it’s a big bill that we need to look at cautiously,” he said.
Tilley agreed “the devil is in the details,” but said something needs to be passed before the impending end of the legislative session. “This is a scourge. People are dying,” he said. “It’s imperative we act this session.”

Kentucky Health News is a service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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