Governor Mike Pence has declared a public health emergency in one southern Indiana county. 

An HIV epidemic has been linked to intravenous drug use in Scott County. 

Deputy State Health Commissioner Jennifer Walthall says people are abusing a powerful painkiller that’s a cousin to Oxycontin and heroin.

"It's Oxymorphone, which the trade name for that is Opana," Walthall explained to WKU Public Radio.  "It's an incredibly powerful and potent opiate that comes in pill form, but can be crushed, boiled, and then injected."

The Indiana State Department of Health has confirmed 71 cases of HIV.  In comparison, Dr. Walthall says Scott County typically sees around five new HIV cases a year. 

The state is preparing to set up a temporary needle exchange program that will allow addicts to swap out dirty needles for clean ones in an effort to stop the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.

Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy

One of the most significant pieces of legislation to come out of this year’s General Assembly session aims to curtail Kentucky’s heroin epidemic.

The bill, which Governor Steve Beshear signed into law Wednesday, toughens penalties for traffickers and increases treatment options for addicts. 

Executive Director Van Ingram in the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy is glad a needle exchange program made it into the final bill.

"We have Hepatitis C rates that are skyrocketing in this state," Ingram told WKU Public Radio.  "The good news is that there's treatment for Hepatitis C now.  The bad news is it's $100,000 per patient and a majority of those patients are on Medicaid," he added.  "This is important.  If we can reduce Hepatitis C exposure, we save tons of money and lives, as well."

Some state lawmakers criticized the needle exchange component of the law, arguing it sent the wrong message and might encourage more drug use.

Local health departments would have the option of creating needles exchanges, allowing addicts to trade out dirty needles for clean ones.  Health departments would first need approval from city and county governments. 

Ingram says 2014 data isn’t available yet, but he expects about 30 percent of overdoses deaths in Kentucky were heroin-related.  That’s compared to three years ago when about five percent of overdose deaths were the result of heroin use.

Legislation that would give parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor Thursday.

The proposal is sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga.

It's similar to a measure Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed last year that failed. The governor also failed to pass voucher legislation in the previous session.

Under Gardenhire's proposal, eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent.

Haslam's proposal was approved in the Senate last year, but the House version was unsuccessful because it sought to expand eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of schools.

Opponents of vouchers say the money should stay with public schools and improve them.

Flickr/Creative Commons/Doc Searls

Public opinion will flip in favor of same-sex marriage—though it will take time to happen, an attorney who helped lead the legal fight against California’s anti-same-sex union law Proposition 8 said in Louisville this week.

This month, the Bluegrass Poll found opposition to same-sex marriage has grown in Kentucky from 50 percent to 57 percent since last summer.

Speaking at a forum with University of Louisville law students on Tuesday, attorney David Boies said other states have set an example of how acceptance of same-sex marriage will play out in the U.S.

“You have marriage equality now in Florida, in Virginia, in the Carolinas, and Utah,” Boies said. “I mean, these were states were people said ‘marriage equality will never work, people will be up in arms, the sky will be falling.’

“Well what happened? Well, nothing happened except everyone got to marry the person they love.”

The U.S. Supreme Court gave a former UPS driver another chance to show her employer discriminated against her when she was pregnant, sending the case back to a lower court.

Senate Republican Dan Coats of Indiana announced Tuesday — probably surprising no one — that he would not seek another term in 2016. Although he has been a stalwart Republican through a turbulent generation in Washington, Coats seems less at home in the hyper-partisan world of Congress today.

While Coats, 71, said his decision was strictly personal and age-related, he did refer to the "terribly dysfunctional Senate" in an interview with the Howey Politics Indiana newsletter.

The three Kentucky hospitals that treat the most heroin overdoses are getting reversal kits to hand out to patients.

The kits will go to University Hospital in Louisville, the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington, and St. Elizabeth Hospital in northern Kentucky.

The kits contain naloxone, which can restart breathing in people who have overdosed.

The initiative to hand out 2,000 kits was announced Tuesday by first lady Jane Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway.

Taxpayers will spend money to keep heroin dealers in prison longer and to give addicts a steady supply of clean needles under a bill that has passed the state legislature designed to curb Kentucky's alarming increase of overdose deaths.

The bill passed late Tuesday and is the result of more three years of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans who had deep philosophical differences about how to treat addicts and the criminal penalties that should be imposed on them and their dealers.

Lawmakers agreed to let local governments set up needle-exchange programs where addicts can swap dirty needles for clean ones in an effort to prevent disease and death. And it toughens penalties for some heroin dealers, requiring them to serve at least 50 percent of their sentence.

Gov. Steve Beshear is expected to sign the bill.

Gas Tax Stabilization Gets 11th Hour Passage

Mar 25, 2015

The Kentucky legislature has acted to stem the drop in gas tax revenues that are used to repair and build roads across the Commonwealth. Passage of a measure to stabilize the state's road fund was a priority of Governor Beshear's.

Officially, it came very early Wednesday morning when House members put their stamp of approval on the gas tax agreement. Owensboro Representative Tommy Thompson voted yes. "We need our roads for convenience, we need them to be safe, but we need them for commerce," said Thompson.

The gas tax measure sets a $0.26 floor for the levy and limits any drop to no more than ten percent. The legislation also provides for an annual adjustment of the fuel tax, instead of quarterly. Elizabethtown Representative Tim Moore believes the road fund issue deserved more time to digest before voting. "But I would ask every member here in explaining my no, did you read this? Did you have time to read this?” Asked Moore.

Erlanger Representative Adam Koenig says the gas tax funding method is 'outdated' and 'outmoded.' "It's my opinion that we need to fund our roads not based upon how much gas you buy, but how many miles you drive,” said Koenig. “But, that's just one of many ideas that are out there."

House Speaker Greg Stumbo supports the move. "Particularly with the weather that we've had to forego this last winter and the terrible status of the roads, every county judge that I know of and magistrate across the state says we need more money to fix these roads," said Stumbo.
The gas tax measure won final passage before the House by a 67 to 29 vote.

Dating Violence Legislation Approved

Mar 25, 2015

After years of debate in Frankfort, the state legislature has approved a measure to add civil protections for dating couples. The legislation has passed in the Democratic House numerous times, but fallen short in the Republican led Senate.

Louisville Representative Joni Jenkins, who worked at the Center for Women and Families for a decade, called the passage a 'long time coming.' "I know that this is gonna be a great tool for especially college campuses, whereas none of those protections would have applied to folks,” said Jenkins. “Now college campuses have this new tool to use to keep people who need to be, kept apart."

Jenkins says providing an avenue for protective orders can help in changing behavior. "And that first encounter in a civil, not a criminal proceeding, can change behavior,” added Jenkins. “It's much easier to change a young man or woman's behavior at 18 or 20 than it is at 40."

The dating violence bill now goes to Governor Beshear for his signature.