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March Madness

Here’s a friendly warning for the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius.

Get ready to cheer for Kentucky.

See, the secretary and I have been working together for many months as I’ve used federal health care reform as a tool to find health care coverage for every Kentucky resident.

With more than 320,000 Kentuckians already signed up through kynect, the Commonwealth’s Health Benefits Exchange, the secretary has seen firsthand that here in Kentucky, we know how to run well-executed plays.

But beginning tonight, she’s going to see Kentucky’s expertise in another environment: the basketball court.

It’s March Madness time, the Commonwealth is represented by three teams (Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville), and I’m confident.

So confident, in fact, that I’m making Sec. Sebelius a bet.

See, the secretary is a former governor of Kansas. THAT Kansas.

And in the NCAA’s first round on Friday, EKU plays Kansas, and UK plays Kansas State.

So here’s the bet: The winner gets to gloat as the loser takes to Twitter to eat crow and cheer on the winner. Follow us on @Sebelius and @GovSteveBeshear to watch it unfold.

Meanwhile, on a more serious note, while we’re placing a friendly bet on our teams, make sure you’re not betting on your health, because we are all just a fall, a foul or an unfriendly diagnosis away from needing quality, affordable healthcare.

Thanks to the new health care law, coverage you can afford is within reach on the Health Insurance Marketplace. If you or someone you know needs affordable health coverage, visit Kynect.Ky.gov in Kentucky or find the Marketplace in your home state on HealthCare.gov. You can enroll online, over the phone or in person at an enrollment site in your area.

It’s so easy, you can do it at halftime.

But don’t wait to sign up for coverage because Open Enrollment ends on March 31. Everyone wins when we spread the word about the Marketplace. So sign up today and stay tuned for the games on Friday!

My State Needs Obamacare. Now.

Sunday morning news programs identify Kentucky as the red state with two high-profile Republican senators who claim their rhetoric represents an electorate that gave President Obama only about a third of its presidential vote in 2012.

So why then is Kentucky — more quickly than almost any other state — moving to implement the Affordable Care Act?

Because there’s a huge disconnect between the rank partisanship of national politics and the outlook of governors whose job it is to help beleaguered families, strengthen work forces, attract companies and create a balanced budget.

It’s no coincidence that numerous governors — not just Democrats like me but also Republicans like Jan Brewer of Arizona, John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Snyder of Michigan — see the Affordable Care Act not as a referendum on President Obama but as a tool for historic change.

That is especially true in Kentucky, a state where residents’ collective health has long been horrendous. The state ranks among the worst, if not the worst, in almost every major health category, including smoking, cancer deaths, preventable hospitalizations, premature death, heart disease and diabetes.

We’re making progress, but incremental improvements are not enough. We need big solutions with the potential for transformational change.

The Affordable Care Act is one of those solutions.

For the first time, we will make affordable health insurance available to every single citizen in the state. Right now, 640,000 people in Kentucky are uninsured. That’s almost one in six Kentuckians.

Lack of health coverage puts their health and financial security at risk.

They roll the dice and pray they don’t get sick. They choose between food and medicine. They ignore checkups that would catch serious conditions early. They put off doctor’s appointments, hoping a condition turns out to be nothing. And they live knowing that bankruptcy is just one bad diagnosis away.

Furthermore, their children go long periods without checkups that focus on immunizations, preventive care and vision and hearing tests. If they have diabetes, asthma or infected gums, their conditions remain untreated and unchecked.

For Kentucky as a whole, the negative impact is similar but larger — jacked-up costs, decreased worker productivity, lower quality of life, depressed school attendance and a poor image.

The Affordable Care Act will address these weaknesses.

Some 308,000 of Kentucky’s uninsured — mostly the working poor — will be covered when we increase Medicaid eligibility guidelines to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville concluded that expanding Medicaid would inject $15.6 billion into Kentucky’s economy over the next eight years, create almost 17,000 new jobs, have an $802.4 million positive budget impact (by transferring certain expenditures from the state to the federal government, among other things), protect hospitals from cuts in indigent care funding and shield businesses from up to $48 million in annual penalties.

In short, we couldn’t afford not to do it.

The other 332,000 uninsured Kentuckians will be able to access affordable coverage — most with a discount — through the Health Benefit Exchange, the online insurance marketplace we named Kynect: Kentucky’s Healthcare Connection.

Kentucky is the only Southern state both expanding Medicaid and operating a state-based exchange, and we remain on target to meet the Oct. 1 deadline to open Kynect with the support of a call center that is providing some 100 jobs. Having been the first state-based exchange to complete the readiness review with the United States Department of Health and Human Services, we hope to become the first one to be certified.

Frankly, we can’t implement the Affordable Care Act fast enough.

As for naysayers, I’m offended by their partisan gamesmanship, as they continue to pour time, money and energy into overturning or defunding the Affordable Care Act. It’s shameful that these critics haven’t invested that same level of energy into trying to improve the health of our citizens.

They insist that the Affordable Care Act will never work — when in fact a similar approach put into effect in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney, then the governor, is working.

So, to those more worried about political power than Kentucky’s families, I say, “Get over it.”

The Affordable Care Act was approved by Congress and sanctioned by the Supreme Court. It is the law of the land.

Get over it ... and get out of the way so I can help my people. Here in Kentucky, we cannot afford to waste another day or another life.

Health Benefit Exchange

Assuming obstructionists in Washington get out of the way, Tuesday marks a sea change that will dramatically alter Kentucky’s future.

That’s the day Kentuckians can begin enrolling in a new health care system that – for the first time ever – will make affordable health care coverage available to every single citizen of the Commonwealth.

Some 640,000 people – almost one in six Kentuckians – are uninsured, a reality that jeopardizes their health and financial security, as well as the state’s competitive strengths.

Come Tuesday, we address that reality.

About half of Kentucky’s uninsured will soon qualify for Medicaid, while the others will be able to access quality insurance – the vast majority of them at a deep discount – through Kentucky’s Health Benefit Exchange. In fact, the discounts will completely eliminate monthly premiums for some individuals.

The exchange – officially called “kynect: Kentucky’s Healthcare Connection” – is an on-line insurance marketplace where Kentuckians can compare state-approved policies offered by private companies and then enroll in one of those policies.

In fact, some people who already have insurance might find a better deal via kynect as well.

To access kynect, visit the web site www.kynect.ky.gov, or call toll-free, 1-855-4kynect (459-6328) to reach a customer care representative who can walk you through the process.

But don’t dawdle.

Kentuckians absolutely must go through kynect in order to receive the discounts, or subsidies, for their new insurance plans. Those who sign up by Dec. 15 will activate their health insurance effective Jan. 1. Enrollment will remain open through March 31, 2014.

Kynect is Kentucky’s tool to implement the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), the health insurance reform approved by Congress and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, there’s been a lot of fear-mongering about costs of health insurance after the ACA, but the reality in Kentucky is that with the kynect discounts, health insurance will be more affordable than ever to Kentuckians who need it most.

And it’s quality insurance.

Every health insurance plan offered through kynect must cover a uniform list of medical needs – called “essential health benefits” – that include things like maternity and newborn care … mental health care … substance-abuse treatment … prescription drugs … and pediatric services, including oral and vision care.

In addition, the ACA requires insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, it bars them from arbitrarily dropping coverage if you get sick, it prohibits companies from charging women more than men, it lets young adults be covered on their parents’ plans until age 26 and it ends lifetime and yearly dollar limits on coverage of essential benefits.

Such coverage will have dramatic impact in Kentucky, a state whose collective health has long been horrendous. In fact, Kentucky ranks among the worst, if not the worst, in almost every major health category, from smoking to cancer deaths, preventable hospitalizations, premature death, cardiovascular and cardiac heart disease and diabetes.

Offering insurance and better health outcomes to the 640,000 uninsured Kentuckians will improve those rankings.

These people are our friends and neighbors. Our former classmates and hunting buddies.  The farmer on the tractor … the substitute teacher grading papers … the seasonal construction laborer … the nurse’s aide … the new graduate at a new high-tech startup … the grocery clerk.

Lack of health coverage puts their health and financial security at risk.

They roll the dice and pray they don’t get sick. They choose between food and medicine. They ignore checkups that would catch serious conditions early. They put off doctor’s appointments, hoping a condition turns out to be nothing. And they live knowing that bankruptcy is just one bad diagnosis away.

Furthermore, their children go long periods without checkups that focus on immunizations, preventive care and vision and hearing tests. If they have diabetes, asthma or infected gums, their conditions remain untreated and unchecked.

For Kentucky as a whole, the negative impact is similar but larger – jacked-up costs, decreased worker productivity, lower quality of life, depressed school attendance and a poor image.

The Affordable Care Act is a historic opportunity to address this reality, and Kentucky is leading the nation in seizing that opportunity.

Those playing political games in Washington need to put aside their partisan fight and get out of the way so our people and our state can get the help we need.

Economic Momentum

Sometimes the timing of things is amusing.

One day this summer, Florida Gov. Rick Scott mass-mailed a recruitment letter to Kentucky businesses expressing his opinion that Kentucky’s economy was in freefall and that they should move to his state.

That very same day, I was in Louisville to announce Gazelle Inc.’s $22.3 million investment in a new electronics processing center that will create 438 Kentucky jobs. A few days earlier, I had been in Northern Kentucky to break ground on DHL Express’ expanded global hub, the culmination of a four-year, $105 million investment … and a couple of days later, Accuride Corporation announced a $5.8 million expansion of its steel wheel production facility in Henderson.

You get the picture.

While some people talk about economic momentum, here in Kentucky we’re demonstrating it.

Gov. Scott’s clumsy attempt to raid our economy helped focus attention in national media on what actually is happening in Kentucky.

I want to recount some of that progress, because it also refutes a recent newspaper opinion column by a former member of the New Zealand parliament (now an American “market expert”), who contended that Kentucky is “stuck in the economic doldrums” and unlikely to attract investment.

Theoretical conjecture is trumped by tangible reality.

Consider these facts about Kentucky’s economy:

  • Kentucky increased its manufacturing GDP growth in 2012 by 10.7 percent – the third-highest increase in the country.

  • Kentucky’s 2012 exports reached a record $22.1 billion, and through the first six months of 2013, we’re 12.6 percent ahead of that pace – the second-highest growth in the nation. We now export to nearly 200 countries, and we’ve enjoyed an influx of foreign investment: Nearly 35 percent of all capital investment in Kentucky and almost 20 percent of new jobs announced in 2012 in the manufacturing, service and technology sectors came from foreign-owned enterprises.

  • Site Selection magazine ranked Kentucky among the top 10 in the nation for qualifying industry locations and expansions.

  • Business Facilities magazine ranked Kentucky as the 7th best Job Growth Leader in the United States in 2012.

  • Kentucky’s percent growth in entrepreneurial activity between 2010 and 2011 was ranked 5th highest in the country by Fast Company magazine. We ranked 2nd between 2011 and 2012 when population was taken into account.

  • Kentucky’s auto manufacturing industry is third in the nation again. We built more than a million cars and light trucks in 2012 … and through the first six months of 2013, we’re almost 38 percent ahead of that pace. Since January 2010, more than 200 motor vehicle-related projects have been announced here, representing 14,500 new jobs and $3.5 billion in new investment.

    And all four of Kentucky’s major assembly plants are being expanded: a $1.2 billion transformation at Ford’s two sites in Louisville … a $530 million upgrade at Toyota’s Georgetown plant that includes a new Lexus production line … and a $134 million expansion at GM’s Bowling Green plant.
  • We also continue to use economic development incentives programs we created in 2009 to help existing businesses expand and close the deal when recruiting new businesses.

    As of June we’ve used those programs on more than 570 projects representing investment in the Commonwealth of more than $6.6 billion. As these companies follow through on their plans, they will create or save more than 45,600 jobs.

But these facts are just the icing on the cake. We’re also taking aggressive steps to improve Kentucky’s workforce now and far into the future, because we recognize that talented and trained employees are the No. 1 concern of our businesses.

Kentucky became one of the first states to implement a Work Ready Communities program, which certifies the quality of the workforce based on six criteria specified by site selectors, business and industry leaders, economic developers and local officials.

We also are ramping up the academic rigor of our career and technical education classes, and we recently passed a law designed to keep every one of our students in school until they graduate. New national statistics show that our graduation rate improved more between 2000 and 2010 than almost any state in the nation.

Doldrums?

Not in Kentucky. Our economy is energized, and that energy will only grow stronger. Driven by the goal of constant improvement, we will continue to make the kinds of investments and implement the kinds of bold ideas needed to move Kentucky forward.

End of Session

Anybody who heard my annual State of the Commonwealth address on Feb. 6 knows I had high hopes for the 2013 legislative session.

Buoyed by months of behind-the-scenes pre-session meetings with leadership and other key members of the Kentucky General Assembly, I confidently described a new atmosphere of civility and dignity in Frankfort marked by the willingness to engage in respectful dialogue and seek consensus – even amid deep philosophical differences.

I also noted a growing awareness that urgent progress was needed on numerous difficult issues.

Today, with the sound of the gavel signaling the end of the legislative session still echoing in the halls of the Capitol, the impressive list of accomplishments from the session suggests that my confidence was well-placed.

Despite this being a “short” session (30 days instead of 60), despite lingering tension from the bitter November presidential election, and despite having a divided legislature, we made tremendous progress on improving Kentucky’s competitive capacity and quality of life.

Among other things:

  • We passed a bill that will keep teens from sabotaging their lives and economic stability by dropping out of school before they have enough education and training to get meaningful jobs. The Graduation Bill – which the First Lady, I and many others have been pushing for several sessions – raises the dropout age from 16 to 18, updating laws that were written in 1920, in a world that barely resembles the world we live in today.
  • We made several “tweaks” to the landmark prescription painkiller legislation passed in 2012 that will strengthen the regulatory framework designed to address devastating abuse and misuse of controlled substances. This will help us continue to make sure patients with legitimate needs get their prescriptions – while we continue to target unlicensed pain clinics, reckless prescribers and criminal behavior.
  • We authorized our public universities to fund 11 major construction projects with $363.3 million in so-called “agency bonds,” which are funded by the institutions themselves and won’t require any money from the General Fund. The projects – which include student housing renovations, new student centers and classrooms – will create or support more than 5,100 jobs.
  • We also passed a number of bills that will help Kentucky children, including better infant health screenings, increased protections against child predators, alignment of key state policies with federal rules regarding child welfare and statutory approval of a panel I created to investigate cases of death or serious injury due to neglect or abuse. That panel is designed to see whether the system of protection broke down, and if so, to improve it.

But perhaps the most significant accomplishment was our bipartisan agreement to solve our looming pension problem and to guarantee promised benefits to current state workers and retirees, all without balancing the books on the backs of our schoolchildren. Together, we made important changes to stabilize our pension system, including:

  • fully funding the annual increased estimated state obligation to the pension plan;
  • creating a hybrid cash-balance plan for future state and local employees, which gives those new employees better portability of their pension benefits;
  • providing for an annual cost-of-living adjustment for retirees if the General Assembly fully prefunds it in the year it is provided; and
  • improving transparency and legislative oversight of the Kentucky Retirement Systems and increasing local government representation on its Board.

Not only did we solve the pension liability, we paid for it through $100 million in new funding, not by robbing money from education or other key services. No matter our political philosophies, none of us were willing to put our kids at risk of a stripped-down education.

We made several changes to our tax structure that – even though most taxpayers will see little to no change to their taxes – collectively will raise the money to fund the pension fix. Those changes are a small step in the direction of a larger tax reform effort that I will continue to push as governor.

I was disappointed that we were unable to reach agreement on other protections for vulnerable populations, and we will continue to push for these in the years ahead. These include protection from second-hand smoke in public places, a registry for those who abuse elderly people, more widespread protection for people in dating relationships, and more stringent booster seat laws that match national guidelines.

Most of the successes from this session I listed above, and other bills that passed, were the end product of a process that included rigorous debate and significant differences of opinion.

But by making sincere efforts to work through differences, and by keeping our eyes focused on the people, not politics, your elected leaders in Frankfort – Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate and in the Office of the Governor – were able to forge agreement.

This is how it should work.

Kentucky Cracks Top Ten in Education

Failure and lagging behind.

That used to be Kentucky’s national story when it came to schools, and so the release of any education rankings was cause for embarrassed cringing.

No longer. Thanks to decades of hard work and aggressive policy changes, Kentucky has a new reputation: National leader. And it’s a cause of celebration.

That new narrative was bolstered and solidified by the recent update of one of the education world’s most respected and comprehensive assessments of school performance and improvement.

The publication Education Week – a national, independent source that relies on comprehensive research and current realities – ranked Kentucky 10th in the nation in its annual “Quality Counts” report. The report is based on an assessment of more than 150 key education indicators, and grades states on their education policy efforts and outcomes.

The seeds of Kentucky’s improvement were sown with the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990 and later with the approval of 2009’s Senate Bill 1 – both of which demanded significant changes in teaching and assessments.

As a result, Kentucky has moved up in the Education Week rankings for the past several years. In 2010, we placed 34th in the nation. Last year we jumped to 14th. And with the 2013 report, Kentucky has broken into the top 10 with a grade of B-, bettering the national average of C+. The highest ranked state was Maryland with a B.

“Quality Counts” examines a wide range of policies and results. On one level, it’s a measure of current performance, but it’s also a measure of forward progress. Clearly, Kentucky is on the move.

Most notably, Kentucky ranked in the top 20 in four out of the six categories examined. The state was recognized for:

  • connecting the K-12 education system with early learning, higher education and the world of work.
  • efforts to improve teaching.
  • K-12 achievement. (Kentucky was among the states showing the most rapid improvement.)
  • standards, assessments and accountability.

We can, and should, be proud of these statistics. They reflect the amazing work being undertaken by teachers, administrators, staff, board members, parents, students, business and community leaders and lawmakers. It is difficult work. Yet, despite budget cuts, no money for textbooks, higher expectations, new standards and a new testing and accountability system, Kentucky teachers and students are succeeding.

However, there is one area of the “Quality Counts” report that we should heed as a warning and as a clarion call for action. That is the area of school finance.

In education funding, Kentucky failed miserably -- a low F. Kentucky spends $1,685 less per pupil than other states on average, and only about 12 percent of our students go to school in districts with funding that matches or exceeds the national average (adjusted for regional cost differences).

We have much to celebrate in this “Quality Counts” report. But imagine where our students could be if we were adequately funding our schools.

The recession and its aftermath required 13 separate budget reductions. While basic classroom funding was preserved, an increase in the number of students meant less money spent per student and reduced services to children.

Our basic funding formula for classroom funding -- Support Educational Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) -- has not changed since 2008. If we continue to flat-fund our classrooms, the progress we’ve made, as noted in “Quality Counts,” will stagnate or possibly erode. Our children will be the ones who lose. We could and we should be doing more to adequately fund education in Kentucky.

It’s time we find new revenue that both fosters economic activity and also allows us to invest in our people, our workforce and our schools. It is an investment in Kentucky’s future and one that will pay off exponentially with a more competitive workforce, stronger economy and improved quality of life for the people of the Commonwealth.

Time is Now for Tax Reform

Over the last five years, during the worst of the economic recession, Governor Steve Beshear had to cut $1.6 billion from the state budget. Families across the state made tough budget decisions, too. While the past few years have been difficult, those bleak economic times forced all of us to reconsider what we value most, and how to make sure that we meet the critical needs of our families.

One of the important lessons we learned in state government is that while our tax system cushioned some of the impact when the economy ran off the tracks, the tax code is not as useful or simple as Kentuckians need it to be. Parts of the tax code are antiquated. Not everyone pays a fair share, and the taxes aren’t easy to understand. Some of the tax code stunts our efforts to keep and attract jobs in a 21st century economy. Most important, the current system isn’t robust enough to guarantee we will have enough money for the services we need most, like education for our kids.

Gov. Beshear recognized that Kentucky can’t afford to wait for tax reform. Early in 2012, he appointed a broad, bipartisan commission to make sure our state doesn’t face another economic crater by failing to update its tax code.

A study of our tax system earlier this summer revealed that without significant changes, Kentucky will face a $1 billion shortfall by 2020.

As chair of Gov. Beshear’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform, I am confident that the work by our members over the last 10 months will help to align Kentucky’s tax structure with the principles of fairness, economic competitiveness and a 21st Century economy.

The Commission delivered its final report to Gov. Beshear Dec. 17. The Governor will study the report before he meets with legislators to build a consensus on moving forward on changes to our tax code.

Our suggested changes to the state tax code would generate roughly $659 million in new revenue annually once fully implemented. These proposals will modernize our tax structure, making it fairer for families and businesses. The changes would position Kentucky to create more jobs, further grow our economy and fund many of the services the Commission heard were needed all across the Commonwealth.

During our review of the tax code, the Commission heard advice from our consultant team, and met with citizens at six town halls across the Commonwealth, learning about how our tax system intersects with Kentuckians on an everyday basis.

What we heard loudly and clearly was if Kentucky is going to continue to invest in education, economic development and health services, we must have an adequate tax code that meets the needs of our citizens -- businesses and individuals alike.

We have no choice.

During the recession, the Governor managed budget cuts and protected key services, like education, health care and public safety, as best we could. But we can’t allow the persistent and painful budget reductions of a recession to become regular practice, because those needed services will eventually wither.

We can’t afford to continue providing just enough money to cover the barest essentials for classrooms, or just enough money to keep job training programs open. In a 21st century economy, “just enough” isn’t good enough. In order to compete, Kentucky has to build a solid foundation for businesses, families and communities to thrive, and invigorating our out-of-date tax code is a necessary step.

The time to act is now. We purposefully waited for our state’s economy to show signs of stability before moving on tax reform, because we needed to get past the worst of the recession before making significant structural change. Recently, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the Commonwealth had the second highest percentage of job growth in the nation from September 2011 to September 2012. Our economy is now in a prime position not only to handle the proposed tax reforms, but also to thrive because of the positive changes in fairness, simplicity, and business support these reforms will bring.

This makes the recommendations of the Tax Commission even more critical.

Improving Kentucky’s tax structure is yet another way to ensure that government works for the people, not against them.

We hope you will continue to stay engaged as the Governor and the General Assembly discuss our path forward toward real tax reform. You can find a copy of our final report on my website, ltgovernor.ky.gov.

More on House Bill 1

Last Monday I was on a panel at the Bluegrass Policy Forum on Substance Abuse in Prestonsburg, which was presented by two groups working to combat Kentucky’s illegal drug habit – the Operation UNITE Foundation and the Recovery Kentucky program.

More than 400 people attended to hear a discussion of new policies and programs geared toward ending the illegal use of prescription drugs.

It was incredible to hear so many people talk so passionately about this issue, and it was encouraging to hear of progress being made.

Given events like this – plus the mind-numbing prescription statistics and the harrowing number of fatalities related to drug overdoses that plague our state -- I’m stunned that there are still a few people who believe that Kentucky doesn’t have a problem with prescription pain-killers, and that a better strategy for us is to return to the prescription playground of pre-House Bill 1 days.

Fortunately, the facts are aligned solidly against this misguided but vocal minority, as are most Kentuckians -- including beleaguered patients, parents and children of overdose statistics, police and prosecutors, the vast majority of the medical community, elected officials of all political persuasions, substance abuse counselors and employers. These Kentuckians -- who have first-hand experience of the horror of addiction – will prove to be on the right side of history.

And fortunately Kentucky is making measurable and encouraging progress in kicking its pain-killer addiction.

HB 1 has been a significant tool in that effort since it passed the Kentucky General Assembly this past spring, and it will continue to be effective in the years ahead. But it’s just one of many tools we’ve employed over the last few years, including expanded substance abuse programs, interstate task forces, law enforcement action, training programs for prescribers and prescription oversight.

We put out a press release a couple of weeks ago touting some progress made over the last year, partly because of House Bill 1. For example:

  • Since July 20, medical providers are requesting about 20,000 KASPER reports a day, giving them access to a patient’s prescription history. A year ago, it was 3,000 a day.
  • The use of some popular pain-killers that are often misused is down.
  • Since HB 1 was implemented, some 10 pain management clinics have shut down rather than abide by new regulations that require medical oversight.
  • And the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure, armed with new tools, is being more aggressive about cracking down on reckless physicians. It has taken disciplinary action against 33 practitioners just in the last six months, compared to 18 in all of 2011.

Recently, we’ve heard from critics of HB 1 who are spending time and large amounts of money to parse words about whether some of the credit for our progress belongs to HB 1 or another one of our initiatives. But they’re missing the proverbial forest for the trees. In fact, by arguing about the improvements, they’re acknowledging them.

These few critics aside, the bottom line is that the medical community as a whole recognized that the old system wasn’t working, and they are working hand in hand with us to change the over-medicated culture of Kentucky.

The regulations of HB1 were primarily written by medical professionals, and in the months ahead we will rely on them to help tweak the law to improve it. And yes, as with all major reform efforts, of course ongoing tweaks are necessary.

But under no circumstance will we abandon Kentucky patients to the mercy of profit-hungry prescribers who continue to demand sole authority and autonomy and who continue to resist the oversight of their colleagues and those in law enforcement.

It was encouraging at the forum to hear other top elected officials make a similar vow of support for HB 1, including Democrat House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Robert Stivers – both of whom fought hard for its passage and both of whom come from districts suffering from addiction to prescription pain-killers.

Like me, they believe we must continue to put the people of Kentucky first.

Close the Deal

Starr Roberts is just the kind of smart young woman you’d want as a friend, a neighbor, or a coworker. She’s a senior at St. Catharine College, completing degrees in business and early childhood studies, and was elected student body president. But she almost didn’t go to college at all.

As a student at Louisville’s Valley High School, she didn’t know how to apply for admission or get financial aid for college. Plus, she had never heard of the small college near Springfield.

But in 2009, her senior year, the City of Louisville partnered with the local business community and Jefferson County Public Schools to create a program called Close the Deal, designed to guide soon-to-be-graduates through the process of pursuing higher education. Through Close the Deal, Starr found the support and resources she needed to begin an unexpected new journey to enroll in college.

"Time was getting closer and closer. Close the Deal helped me make the best decision, and I'm extremely blessed that St. Catharine College was able to be a part of this program,” said Starr. “I've accomplished a lot of my goals throughout the four years I've been at St. Catharine College."

I visited St. Catharine College last year and talked with Starr about the extraordinary impact that Close the Deal made in her life. That’s when I knew it was time to take this program statewide.

We launched Close the Deal when I was mayor of Louisville, because we had so many talented students who would earn high school diplomas but had no idea what to do next. They didn’t know how to pursue higher education, whether through community college for a certificate or a two-year associate degree, or a traditional four-year university. These students had real potential, but needed some guidance in how to get to the next step of their educational careers.

Since 2009, Close the Deal has helped approximately 5,400 students in Louisville find a path to higher education they didn’t realize was in reach. Many of these young adults became the first in their family to attend college – like me.

It’s time for more high school students throughout the Commonwealth to have the same opportunity.

Partnering with Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, we are preparing to launch a state pilot Close the Deal program at Bullitt Central, Campbell County and Lawrence County High Schools. We are hopeful that additional counties will join the program next year.

Last month, we gathered all the partners in these counties – local elected officials, the education leadership and local chamber of commerce – to set the stage for the three kickoff events: Oct. 3 at Campbell County, Oct. 9 at Bullitt Central, and Oct. 22 at Lawrence County.

The Kentucky Department of Education has also added Close the Deal to the department’s Operation Preparation initiative. Operation Preparation combines the efforts of the Department of Education and the Department of Workforce Development to help students plan life after high school.

Our goal is to create a strong college culture in schools with lower college-going rates; to support high school counselors to more effectively assist students in college application and enrollment; and to engage business and postsecondary communities to assist students in establishing and meeting postsecondary goals.

Close the Deal goes hand-in-hand with the aggressive educational goals of Gov. Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear, who have worked tirelessly over the last five years to increase the level of education attainment for students across the Commonwealth.

Those efforts are paying off. Kentucky has improved faster than any state in the nation on key higher education performance measures, according to a report issued last fall by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

The report ranked Kentucky ranked first among all states on three metrics, including the rate of improvement in the percent of working-age adults with college degrees, six-year graduation rates at four-year colleges and universities, and the number of undergraduate credentials awarded relative to the population with no college degree.

Education is a high priority for Gov. Beshear and our administration. We are confident that Close the Deal will be a tool to prepare Kentucky’s future workforce to fill high-playing, knowledge-based jobs.

We are excited about the possibilities and success Close the Deal will bring to high school seniors across Kentucky, just as it did in Louisville for Starr Roberts.

For more information about Close the Deal in Kentucky, visit my website at ltgovernor.ky.gov.

House Bill 1

We need to remember the big picture on prescription drug abuse.  Nearly 1,000 Kentuckians die every year from drug overdoses.  For the most part, they’re not overdosing on over-the-counter medications.  They’re dying from drugs that were either prescribed by a medical professional or were illegally obtained.

In 2011, our prescription monitoring program, KASPER, reported that 219 million doses of hydrocodone were dispensed in Kentucky.  That’s nearly 51 doses for every man, woman and child in the state.   Does any medical professional out there think that’s a number that seems appropriate for the medical needs of a state our size?

There’s no question that prescription drug abuse is killing our people, damaging our families, and crippling our workplaces.  So when a fraction of practitioners complain that new regulations to drive out drug abusers are “too burdensome” on the medical community, I am confounded not only by their immediate rejection of a simple, commonsense step to better track these drugs, but also by their utter lack of a reasonable alternative to curb prescription diversion and abuse.

Some of the complaints are born out of plain confusion or misinformation.  Here’s the truth:

  • FACT: Since HB1 implementation on July 20, medical providers are requesting about 20,000 KASPER reports a day.  A year ago, it was 3,000 a day.  Clearly, a huge number of our physicians are using KASPER, despite the concerns of a few who say it is too cumbersome.
  • FACT: Since HB1 implementation, 93 percent of KASPER requests are processed in less than five seconds.
  • FACT: Even if KASPER is down, or can’t provide immediately verified information, that doesn’t mean the doctor can’t prescribe a controlled substance.  The regulations were built with that consideration – and simply state that a provider must “query”, or ask, for the report.  If the response is delayed for whatever reason, providers can still write any needed prescription right away.
  • FACT: Each professional board has instituted what amounts to a kind of grace period for providers in the first several weeks of HB1’s implementation.  That means through Oct. 1, the boards will not take disciplinary action against providers for most errors under the new regulations, in order for the medical community to get used to the new guidelines.  It’s a smart way to introduce the practices without the worry of reprisal for honest mistakes.

We simply cannot continue the same practices in medicine or law enforcement and expect the number of overdoses to drop on their own, or for doctor shoppers to have an unprompted change of heart.  Addiction doesn’t work that way. 

I know the vast majority of our medical professionals provide thoughtful care for Kentuckians, and that they recognize that prescription drug abuse is a raging terror in our hometowns.  Most practitioners are following the law, and I expect we will see tangible results soon.

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