His priorities were education and tax reform, but Gov. Steve Beshear mentioned several health issues in his State of the Commonwealth speech tonight to a joint session of the General Assembly. Beshear called for action to correct the state's "fundamental weaknesses," including "a population whose health ranks among the worst in the nation." Near the end of his speech, he said, "We need to continue improving the health of our people," but after about a minute of discussing tobacco and smoking he stopped short of endorsing a statewide ban on smoking in the workplace. (KET photo)
"It's time for us to begin looking seriously at doing this on a statewide level," he said to some applause, after noting that nearly half of Kentuckians live in jurisdictions where smoking is legally restricted, that the state has the highest or next-to-highest smoking rate overall and among teens and pregnant women, and that "Our smoking-related mortality rate is the worst in the nation. . . . Our addiction hurts productivity, jacks up health care costs and kills our people."
Beshear called for improving prenatal care and newborn screening, and for minor improvements in last year's bill to fight prescription drug abuse. He said the bill has caused a precipitous drop in abuse of prescription painkillers. "Kentucky at one time had the sixth highest rate in the nation, but . . . we improved 24 spots," he said. "Nearly half of the state's known pain management clinics have closed rather than submit to new rules that protect patients." He said use of the Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting system "has increased nearly seven-fold . . . and prescriptions for some of the most abused drugs have dropped up to 14 percent from a year ago."
However, the problem of babies becoming addicted to drugs in their addicted mothers' wombs has skyrocketed in the last decade or so, Beshear said: "In 2000, reports showed 29 babies in Kentucky born addicted to drugs. But in 2011, there were 730 babies – more than 25 times as many. And that figure is thought to be under-reported." He did not say how he wants to improve screening.
Beshear did not mention perhaps the biggest health policy question facing the commonwealth, whether to use federal subsidies to expand the Medicaid program to people in households earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty threshold. Now the program covers people in households earning up to 70 percent of the poverty line. The federal government would pay all the cost of the additional enrollees through 2016, when the state would start picking up part of the tab, up to 20 percent in 2020.
Some Republicans say the state can't afford the expansion, while some Democrats say it would be a good long-term investment in the state's health and economy. Beshear has said he wants to do it if the commonwealth can afford it, and expects to get cost estimates around the end of March -- about the time the legislature must adjourn.
For a PDF of the speech text, click here. For an audio recording, go here. For video from KET, here.