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States, agencies seeking solutions

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States, agencies seeking solutions

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Treatment centers such as Chad's Hope in Clay County aim to help get prescription drug addicts back on track. This story is part of a series that examines prescription drug abuse in Kentucky.

Communities join the battle on abuse
Courier-Journal
Monday, January 31, 2011

Chad McWhorter always talked about having a house on family land in Manchester, Ky. Instead, he died in 2004 at 21 of a prescription drug overdose.

Today, his legacy lives on in a treatment center on 80 acres donated by his father, Charlie McWhorter. Called Chad's Hope, the center can house 52 men, offering a year-long Christian recovery program that activists say helps fight prescription drug abuse in Clay County.

“Quite simply, it saved my life,” said Shawn Epperson, 25, who stayed there 15 months recovering from an OxyContin addiction. “I am no longer a drug addict; I am ready to start my life.”

Chad's Hope is one of many efforts in Clay County to ease the pain of prescription drug abuse and save addicts' lives.

Experts say those battling Kentucky's prescription drug abuse problem can learn from communities such as Clay and states such as Utah that have made strides as they struggle to forge ahead despite a bad economy.

Saddled with the nation's third-highest death rate from prescription drug overdoses, Utah launched a $500,000 campaign in 2008 to educate the public and provide guidelines for doctors.

Officials say the result was a 12.6 percent drop in deaths — the largest decrease in more than 15 years.

And although the campaign has since lost its funding because of budget cuts, the state still operates several other anti-drug programs.

“I'm hoping we had some lasting effect,” said Dr. Robert Rolfs, Utah's state epidemiologist. “This is not a problem that's going away on its own.”

Kentucky officials say they also are working toward their own solutions despite similar funding shortfalls.

Attorney General Jack Conway, for example, launched Kentucky's first statewide prescription drug diversion task force in 2009 to investigate drug trafficking, doctor shopping, illegal out-of-state pharmacies and physicians who overprescribe.

State officials also hope to see more of an impact from its highly praised Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting system, an online database that doctors and pharmacists can use to find a patient's history of controlled substance prescriptions.

Addicts and those who work with them say it can foil plans to trick doctors into prescribing painkillers. It's been copied in many states, and there's an effort to link all such systems.

Gov. Steve Beshear said officials are researching whether to require doctors who prescribe controlled substances to have a KASPER account.

“In terms of prescription monitoring, Kentucky is one of the best states,” said Sherry Green, chief executive officer of the New Mexico-based National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.

UNITED AGAINST DRUGS

Christians launched effort in Clay County

A decade ago, Clay County lost one resident a week to prescription drug overdoses, anti-drug activists said.

Fed up, a small group of area Christians began meeting on Saturday mornings in 2002 to pray about the problem. They eventually asked for help from local judges, lawyers and politicians.

In May 2004, more than 3,500 people marched against drugs in Manchester.

Energized, the number of activists grew — and mobilized.

“We're all working together,” said the Rev. Doug Abner, pastor of Manchester's Community Church.

Abner's church started a “Court Watch” program in which volunteers attended hearings to monitor how judges were handling drug cases. Abner said it put pressure on officials to mete out just punishment.

But the prescription drug problem persisted. Ronnie Cottongim of Manchester, a Court Watch volunteer, couldn't save son Brandon from becoming a casualty.

Cottongim recalled how his son, hooked on OxyContin, used to come to him and say: “Daddy, I've got a problem, but I can't do anything about it.”

One day in 2006, Cottongim returned home from Court Watch to find Brandon dead in his bed. He was 27.

“I loved him with all my heart,” Cottongim said, his voice breaking.

Cottongim doggedly pushed for more resources to help addicts avoid Brandon's fate.

“I want people to know there is hope for them,” he said. “That's the reason I was so adamant about getting Chad's Hope.”

The center opened in February 2008 and is now run by Teen Challenge International USA, a Missouri-based nonprofit agency. Abner and Charlie McWhorter said its yearlong program fills a void; experts say Kentucky has far too few centers offering treatment beyond 90 days.

“Just to see the lives change, it's amazing,” McWhorter said.

Epperson, a former University of Kentucky student from Winchester, said he started using OxyContin after his father died of a brain aneurysm in 2007.

He got it off the street from friends who got it in Florida. Eventually, he was taking 10 pills a day, while also using other drugs. But after he stole $10,000 from his mother, he wound up in jail and was placed by court order in Chad's Hope. He got counseling, read the Bible every day and went to chapel.

“It's opened my eyes,” said Epperson, who plans to work at a church back home when he graduates from the program, and eventually go into the ministry to help youth like himself.

Activists said such efforts are beginning to make a difference. The county's prescription drug death rate was 32.1 per 100,000 in 2003-07, compared with 53.7 in the state's hardest-hit county, nearby Bell.

While reliable statistics for previous years aren't available for Clay County, several residents agreed with Abner's assessment: “The drug situation has got better.”

Now when drivers enter the county seat of Manchester, a street sign announces, “The City of Hope.”

Reporter Laura Ungar can be reached at (502) 582-7190 or lungar@courier-journal.com. Reporter Emily Hagedorn can be reached at (502) 582-7086 or ehagedorn@courier-journal.com.