- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2015
Rogers: Disability pay to be restored for 900 recipients

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - The federal government has reinstated disability payments to hundreds of Appalachian recipients whose checks were suspended after their attorney was targeted in a fraud investigation.

Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin announced Thursday that her agency had decided to lift the suspension.

The Social Security Administration suspended benefits last month to 900 people in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia who had been represented by attorney Eric C. Conn, who called himself “Mr. Social Security.” Conn was the target of a 2013 U.S. Senate investigation that concluded he schemed with doctors and a judge to push dubious disability claims through the system.

Conn has not been charged with any crime. His attorney, Kent Wicker, said the government concluded its investigation and declined to pursue criminal charges. Conn is still practicing law in Kentucky, he said, and is relieved that his clients will continue to get their checks.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said he urged the Social Security Administration on Wednesday to reconsider its decision to suspend the checks. “I was rather blunt that this was a matter of life and death,” Rogers said.

Three people whose payments were suspended are believed to have killed themselves, Rogers said, though he did not provide details and acknowledged the connection between the deaths and the disability payments is unclear. Another person had a nervous breakdown, said attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who led the charge to get the payments restored. Both Rogers and Pillersdorf said they were bombarded with phone calls from people afraid they wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for their home, their meals and medications.

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Appalachia gripped by hepatitis C epidemic, bracing for HIV

HAZARD, Ky. (AP) - Patton Couch shook his head and clenched his teeth, recounting the night four years ago when he plucked a dirty needle from a pile at a flophouse and jabbed it into his scarred arm.

He knew the odds; most of the addicts in the room probably had hepatitis C.

“All I cared about was how soon and how fast I could get it in,” he says. “I hated myself, it was misery. But when you’re in the grips of it, the only way I thought I could escape it was one more time.”

Couch, 25 years old and one month sober, is one of thousands of young Appalachian drug users recently diagnosed with hepatitis C. Yet public health officials warn that it could get much worse.

Two-hundred miles north, Scott County, Indiana, is grappling with one of the worst American HIV outbreaks among injection drug users in decades. Kentucky, with the nation’s highest rate of acute hepatitis C, might be just a few dirty needles away from a similar catastrophe.

“One person could be Typhoid Mary of HIV,” said Dr. Jennifer Havens, an epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, who has studied Perry County drug users for years as the hepatitis rate spiraled through small-town drug circles there. An explosion of hepatitis C, transmitted through injection drug use and unprotected sex, can foreshadow a wave of HIV cases.

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Facts about needle exchanges and Hepatitis C

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - STATES FEAR NEEDLES

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented a 364 percent increase in new cases of Hepatitis C in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. Of the four states, only Kentucky has passed legislation to allow for syringe exchanges. Such programs remain illegal in Virginia. West Virginia is considering implementing a pilot program, citing the Hepatitis C epidemic. Ron Crowder, a recovered drug addict, runs an underground needle exchange program out of a public housing apartment in Nashville, Tennessee. For 15 years, he has delivered clean syringes to addicts. But his state’s law does not explicitly allow for needle exchange programs. Crowder contracted both Hepatitis C and HIV while injecting drugs decades ago, “so I’m willing to risk it,” he says.

KENTUCKY TAKES THE PLUNGE

With a new law in Kentucky, counties can set up their own needle exchanges, and it looks like the state’s largest cities, Louisville and Lexington, will be the first adopters. Along with free needles, the programs would seek to foster relationships with users in order to invite them to get treatment and apply for insurance coverage, said Dr. Stephanie Mayfield Gibson, commissioner for Kentucky’s state health department. Drug users may be reticent about making contact with public officials, but the need to avoid infections like Hepatitis and HIV will outweigh those fears for most users, Gibson says. Officials say syringe exchanges also keep dirty, infected needles from being discarded on streets, parks or other public places.

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Judge rules ex-lawmaker’s estranged wife can’t testify

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - A federal judge has ruled that a former lawmaker’s estranged wife won’t be allowed to testify at his trial about a conversation with him because of spousal privilege.

The Lexington Herald-Leader (https://bit.ly/1G9U8dwhttps://bit.ly/1G9U8dw ) reports U.S. District Chief Judge Karen Caldwell said at a motion hearing Thursday in Lexington that if former state Rep. Keith Hall’s case goes to trial, the jury won’t hear Stephanie Hall testify about a 2010 conversation in which she said he told her he was paying money to the state mine inspector assigned to his coal mines.

Prosecutors say Keith Hall paid about $46,000 in bribes to Kelly Shortridge, who was then a state mine inspector. Shortridge, who pleaded guilty in March, has said he agreed to ignore violations at Hall’s mines in Pike County.

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Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, https://www.kentucky.comhttps://www.kentucky.com

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