HOPKINSVILLE - When I ran for office I obviously brought a number of ideas to Frankfort in hopes of doing good work for Kentucky. As you can imagine, these ideas are a product of my life experiences and values. One topic of particular interest to me after my time as a prosecutor is the birth of drug-dependent babies and the drug addiction and drug abuse of expectant mothers. This newborn condition, known as NAS (neonatal abstinence syndrome), was also the subject of the National Prescription Drug Abuse Summit this week, which I had the privilege to attend. NAS occurs when an expectant mother abuses prescription or illicit drugs during her pregnancy. The substances run their course through the mother's body and are transferred to the child through the placenta, as are the drugs' effects. At birth, the child is addicted to the substances abused by the mother. When no longer absorbing the drugs within the mother's body the newborn experiences withdrawal. For example, children suffering from NAS are born sensitive to light, and instead of milk these newborns are given morphine.
NAS is a part of a larger prescription drug abuse epidemic that we face in the U.S. and particularly in Kentucky which holds the dubious distinction of ranking as the 4th most medicated state. The costs to these newborns, mothers and families are terrible. The cost to taxpayers is tremendous. Dr. John Dreyzehner, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, shared figures from his state at the Summit. In 2010 Tennessee had over 500 children born with identified NAS, and the cost of treating each child's addictions for the first year alone are approximately $63,000. Further, the long term effects of NAS on child development and health later in life are still not fully known. Kentucky had 29 reported cases of NAS in 2001 statewide. By 2011 the count had ballooned to 730.
Symptoms of NAS may include any of the following, or a combination thereof:
• Blotchy skin coloring • Hypertonia • Diarrhea • Apnea • Excessive or high-pitched crying • Fever • Hyperactive reflexes • Irritability • Poor feeding • Tachypnea (Rapid breathing) • Seizures • Sleep problems • Slow weight gain • Sweating • Trembling • Vomiting
There is also a legal dilemma in Kentucky. Currently a pregnant mother cannot be prosecuted for abusing drugs because of a Kentucky Supreme Court opinion issued a couple of years ago. I learned that lesson the hard way, having a case against a mother fall apart in my hands as we received the Court's opinion. To complicate the matter, when I set out in January to draft a bill to undo the damage of that court opinion, I encountered another dilemma on the flip side - pure criminalization of abusing drugs while pregnant may incentivize abortion. Needless to say, this a consequence that I want to avoid entirely.
I have already engaged staff and stakeholders to begin working toward legislation that protects newborns from behavior that leads to NAS, but also provides resources to mothers who want help, and make it possible for mothers to play the role for their children God intended.
As always, you can call me anytime at my office in Frankfort at 502-564-8100. To review the work of the 2013 Regular Session or to get regular updates, bookmark site or visit the General Assembly's site at www.lrc.ky.gov. Archived meetings and proceedings, as well as interim coverage, can be viewed at www.ket.org. I encourage you to share with me your thoughts on this issue and any other that is important to you as the interim period work gets underway.