Answers to Region's Heroin Crisis Not Found in National Drug Czar's Visit to Covington with McConnell
The rare opportunity to host both the United States Senate Majority Leader and the Director of National Drug Control Policy in a region hammered by a growing and widespread heroin epidemic could have offered new insights and new hope to combat it.
The joint appearance by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and White House Drug Czar Michael Botticelli in Covington on Thursday did not, however.
While acknowledging the region's problem and introducing a White House official to it at a tour of St. Elizabeth Hospital prior to their semi-public appearance could prove to be beneficial down the road, how was not immediately clear.
There are no new federal funds to announce and no specific plan to help Northern Kentucky deal with the scourge that has resulted in escalating overdoses, petty criminal activity, and danger on the streets as high or intoxicated drivers crashed into 3 different Covington buildings over the past two weeks and another passed out in a fast food drive-through in Newport on Wednesday prompting a search for his passenger that fled the scene. Similar occurrences are happening daily all over Northern Kentucky. The Kenton County Grand Jury report released Thursday showed 9 new indictments on heroin charges. In Taylor Mill this week, police said that they have 3 to 5 arrests each week related to heroin charges.
"I have plenty of differences with the administration, as you may know, but I'm here with the Director of Drug Control Policy because this is something that is beyond partisan debate," McConnell told the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce at a ticketed event inside the posh Metropolitan Club atop the RiverCenter towers.
By the event's end, however, McConnell did offer a taste of partisanship, expressing his belief that the Senate is operating more effectively now that he is in charge.
The 30-year veteran of the Senate also briefly discussed some of the statistics that have landed Northern Kentucky as the epicenter of the opioid crisis facing the nation, and Appalachian states in particular. "Because of the magnitude of heroin in Northern Kentucky I thought it was a good idea to focus on this issue," McConnell said. "In Northern Kentucky, we are at the epicenter of the state's heroin problem." He noted St. Elizabeth Hospital overdose patients tripling in number from 2011 to 2014.
26 newborns at the hospital were diagnosed with drug withdrawal four years ago. In 2014, that number swelled to 128.
What will the federal government do about the number of prescription drugs that flood the market, she asked. "Big Pharma created this mess. They created this heroin epidemic so when is the FDA going to put American lives before the paychecks of Big Pharma?"
"I understand your concern," Botticelli responded. "The FDA has taken a number of actions. There are a lot of people in this country who need access to pain meds but still, someone is prescribing these and we want to make sure at the prescription level, at the time of prescription, only people who need these meds are getting them and people are monitoring them."
He said the federal government is also investigating non-abusive pain medicines and better pain management protocols.
"I haven't met a family that hasn't been impacted by substance abuse," Botticelli said. "We need to show people that there is hope on the other side. I felt ashamed in admitting I have a problem, but also in not understanding there was this incredibly happy life on the other side."
Kentucky will be armed with tougher anti-heroin laws and access to local option needle exchanges (something Botticelli supports) thanks to a bill passed and signed in Frankfort earlier this year. Locally, the Kenton County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office is also working to gain more treatment options for heroin-related defendants and the Campbell County Jail is expanding to offer more treatment options to incarcerated addicts.
Story & photo by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News