Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Heroin bill finally passes and is signed into law; Naloxone program put into motion; dating-violence bill sent to Beshear

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The long-negotiated bill to tackle Kentucky's heroin-overdose epidemic passed in the final hours of the 2015 legislative session.

Almost immediately after the heroin bill passed the Senate, a bill to offer immediate civil protections to dating partners who are victims of dating violence was passed after being held in the chamber since February 13 -- likely because Democratic Rep. John Tilley of Hopkinsville, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, was the original sponsor of both bills.

Tilley told reporters that the passage of the two bills meant it had been a successful session.

Gov. Steve Beshear signed the heroin legislation, Senate Bill 192, into law Wednesday, March 25, less than 12 hours after it passed, so that its emergency clause could put it into effect immediately. The dating violence bill, House Bill 8, has been delivered for his signature.

"Senate Bill 192 is tough on traffickers who bring these deadly drugs into our communities, but compassionate toward those who report overdoses or who admit they need help for their addiction," Beshear said in a release. "I applaud our legislators for putting aside partisan interests for the greater good of all Kentuckians who have been affected by this devastating drug."

The bill passed the Democrat-controlled House 100-0 and the Republican-controlled Senate 34-4. Republican senators John Schickel of Union, Joe Bowen of Owensboro, Chris Girdler of Somerset and Paul Hornback of Shelbyville voted against it.

The stickiest issues were a needle-exchange program, which many senators opposed, and tough new penalties for drug traffickers, which Tilley and many House members said would not be effective. The new law allows needle-exchange programs of approved by local governments, and the tough penalties, but allows the judge to be lenient in sentencing if the defendant is an addict.

The bill also allocates money for drug treatment programs; includes a "good Samaritan" provision that allows a person to seek medical help for an overdose victim and stay with them without fear of being charged; access for addicts and their families to the drug Naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose; and allows the Department of Corrections to provide an approved medication to inmates to prevent a relapse in their addiction.

"The bill includes provisions that are important to law enforcement and me: increasing penalties for large volume traffickers, expanding access to treatment, and getting heroin overdose reversal kits into the hands of our first responders. I know this legislation will save lives," Attorney General Jack Conway said in a news release.

Hornback argued that "forced rehab doesn't usually work," providing addicts with Naloxone and free needles simply enables them and the bill does not allow addicts any "consequences for their actions."

He said that while he knows there are people dying from heroin overdoses,"I didn't make that decision for them and I for one, and a lot of my constituents are tired of paying for people's bad decisions and that is what this (bill) does."

Tilley said in an interview after the vote that needle exchange programs are proven to work, will save taxpayers money and are absolutely necessary to "stem the tide of two tidal-waves that are headed Kentucky's way: HIV and Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B."

"The cost of treating someone with HIV is $350,000. The cost of treating someone with Hepatitis C is $85,000. The budget now had a $55 million hit just with the explosion of Hepatitis C last year. We can't afford that in Kentucky," he said. Advocates say the programs can be a gateway to treatment and rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, Conway and first lady Jane Beshear announced that funding for Naloxone kits would be made available to the hospitals in Kentucky with the highest rates of heroin overdose deaths. The kits will be provided free to every treated and discharged overdose victim at the pilot-project hospitals.

They made the announcement at the University of Louisville, which treated 588 people in 2013 for heroin overdoses, a news release said. In 2013, the latest data available, 230 of the 722 autopsied overdose deaths, or 32 percent, were caused by heroin, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

Tilley and Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, also of Hopkinsville, "forged a friendship that allowed the two men to work out differences on a pair of high profile bills fraught with political pitfalls," Adam Beam reports for The Associated Press. "Westerfield, a former prosecutor, is running for attorney general against the son of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, giving Democrats all the reason in the world not to work with him."

The AP notes that Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel wrote the first draft of the heroin bill that passed the Senate in January, but it omits McDaniel's other role: candidate for lieutenant governor on a slate headed by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. As the Senate prepared to give the final bill final passage, Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer accused the House of not passing McDaniel's bill because of his candidacy.
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