When U.S Rep. Hal Rogers launched Operation UNITE in 2003, he hoped it would reverse the tide of drug addition that was sweeping southeastern Kentucky.
But as the years passed and the scourge of prescription pill and heroin abuse spread from Appalachia to the entire nation, Rogers wanted to expand the reach and impact of the organization. So in 2011, the group held its first national summit on drug addiction with 700 people in attendance. This past spring, Operation UNITE hosted its eighth annual summit in Atlanta with 4,000 attendees.
“It just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” says Rogers. “It’s beyond anything I first imagined.”
Now in his 38th year in Congress representing Kentucky’s 5th Congressional district, Rogers continues his tireless efforts to combat addiction and poverty in his native region. The Republican talked about his work on KET’s Congressional Update.
Fighting the Drug Scourge
Operation UNITE (which stands for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment, and Education) serves 32 counties in eastern and southeastern Kentucky. Rogers admits that when he started the group 16 years ago, he had a limited view of how to fight the region’s drug problem.
“I had the idea that this was a law enforcement problem – that we could arrest the pushers and the problem goes away,” he says. “In fact we convicted 4,500 pushers, but I quickly came to the conclusion that that’s only a part of the problem. We’ve still got people who are addicted that we’ve got to deal with… and we’ve got to try to teach young people to stay away from this deadly pill.”
UNITE employs a holistic approach to fight drug abuse by shutting down pill mills and arresting dealers while also increasing treatment options and educating adults and youth about the dangers of narcotics addiction. Rogers says it takes this kind of comprehensive, sustained effort to make a dent in the drug scourge. After years of work, he says they’re starting to see good results.
“In eastern Kentucky, prescription drug deaths are way down. The number of prescriptions for OxyContin, for example, are real low. That’s the good news,” says Rogers. “The bad news is they’re turning to heroin and meth and, worst of all, fentanyl.”
As law enforcement and health care providers made it harder to get illicit prescription drugs, Rogers says people with an addiction turned to those cheaper alternatives, which can be deadlier. More than 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number includes nearly 1,600 Kentuckians.
In April the National Institute on Drug Abuse awarded the University of Kentucky an $87 million grant to reduce opioid deaths in 16 counties in the commonwealth. UK was one of four sites across the United States selected for the ambitious project.
“The goal is to reduce overdose deaths by 40 percent nationally over the next three years,” says the congressman. “That is a moonshot”
Rogers says he’s been fighting the region’s drug problem his entire career, beginning when he was Commonwealth’s Attorney for Pulaski and Rockcastle counties from 1969 to 1980. He says marijuana was the drug of choice in those days. Even though the focus has shifted to opioid-based drugs, Rogers says marijuana still poses a serious threat.
“It’s a gateway drug to bad things,” he says. “So for that reason I think it would be a bad mistake to try to legalize marijuana.”
The Congressman has even bigger hopes for his Operation UNITE. He recently spoke to the GOP caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives about UNITE’s work, and found that many of his colleagues want to replicate the organization in their districts.
Other Eastern Kentucky Concerns
The 5th district hasn’t just suffered under the drug scourge. Rogers says it’s also lost 12,000 jobs due to the decline in the coal industry. Those losses have rippled throughout the regional economy.
“For every coal job you lose, there’s two other jobs that go away,” says the congressman. “So we’ve had a real sucker-punch in east Kentucky.”
Rogers praises President Donald Trump for rolling back regulations on coal and coal-burning power plants. He says that there’s some hope for metallurgical coal, which is used in steel production, but he fears that coal for electric power is becoming a thing of the past.
“We may never get back to the heyday that we once knew because so many of these coal-fired power plants now are destroyed [or] burning something else,” he says.
To help diversify the region’s economy, Rogers joined with then-Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, to create Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), in 2013. The organization brings together local citizens from government, business, education, health care, agriculture, non-profits, and other sectors to take a fresh look at the economic problems and opportunities facing the region and work to implement solutions.
“It’s really inspiring to see a region rebirthing itself, finding new ways to make a living,” Rogers says. “We’ve never had to do that before. We had this very big coal industry that paid good wages and good benefits, and people didn’t dare leave that nice, comfortable job.”
An early goal of SOAR was to bring high-speed, high capacity broadband internet service to the region. Rogers sees that project, which later took on a statewide focus under the moniker Kentucky Wired, as crucial to bringing new opportunities to people living in rural communities.
“That will revolutionize the economy of eastern Kentucky,” he says. “In the past we’ve had to leave to go to Cincinnati or Detroit to find a job. With the [broadband internet], we can work at home and bring the jobs to home rather than us to the job.”
“So for the first time in our history, we’re out there finding new, exciting, modern ways to make a living and it’s making us a better people.”
Positive Reviews for the Trump Administration
Rogers gives President Trump high marks for his work at home and abroad.
“The economy is burning white-hot and creating millions of new jobs,” the congressman says. “So his economic policies are working. And, secondly, his foreign policy is sometimes blustery but having a pretty good result.”
To resolve the immigration crisis, Rogers says a physical barrier is the only way to stop illegal crossings. But he says that may not necessarily mean a wall on the American border.
“Where the problem really exists is on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala,” says Rogers. “There the peninsula is very narrow and it would be reasonably cost efficient to build some sort of a barrier down there where the distance maybe is 100 or 200 miles as opposed to the [longer] U.S.-Mexico border.”
On domestic policy, Rogers says health care remains a challenge. He says he’s not happy with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) and doesn’t think many Americans are either. He says he’s awaiting the Trump Administration’s health care proposal to see if it’s a plan that he can support.