CHARLESTON – In 2016, approximately 64,000 people died of a drug overdose. That’s more than the number of people that would fit into Milan Puskar Stadium. Of those deaths, close to 50,000 were caused by opioids. West Virginia has been the hardest hit state in this national epidemic, with a death rate of 52 people per 100,000.
These are heartbreaking numbers, but they are also so large that they tend to dehumanize the crisis. Those impacted by this epidemic are more than numbers – they are daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. We must never stop fighting this tragedy and as a Republican and a physician, I’m proud of what the Republican-led legislature has done in this area throughout the last several years.
In 2018, we passed SB 401, which removes a significant financial burden from families by requiring private health insurers to cover six months of inpatient substance abuse treatment immediately upon diagnosis without needing prior authorization. West Virginia is the second state to pass this law.
We have also increased access to opioid antagonists, which can reverse potentially fatal overdoses. Now, healthcare providers have increased access to these life-saving medications, as do pharmacists and school nurses. This will save West Virginia lives.
The Republican-led Legislature has also directed $22 million to establish additional substance abuse treatment facilities across the state and $10 million to the Office of Drug Control Policy to help combat substance abuse.
Yet, as important as treatment is, the way to roll back this crisis is through prevention and enforcement. Opioids are so addicting, that treatment often fails, and we must stop addiction before it has a chance to take hold.
That’s why, in 2017, we passed HB 2195, which requires comprehensive drug awareness and prevention program to be implemented by the upcoming school year. We have also worked to slow the flow of drugs into our state by outlawing the deadly drug fentanyl and increasing the penalties for those who traffic this and other deadly poisons to West Virginia.
Let me add an important, but less often discussed, indirect factor that has a positive impact on the drug epidemic in our state. Under Republican control, West
Virginia has climbed out of the biggest economic hole in the history of our great state. It stems from a responsible scrutiny of the budget, reining in big government and wasteful spending, and not raising taxes on West Virginians, which has been a too-often utilized "easy way out" option in the past. The results are significant decreases in overall unemployment and significant increases in wages earned for all state employees.
Reducing unemployment is another important factor helping combat the drug epidemic. Employment provides a sense of self-worth, a feeling of contribution and pride. It can remove feelings of helplessness and feelings of despair. This does help and will continue to help prevent many from turning to drugs and developing an addiction.
But the opioid crisis is not limited to West Virginia – it is a national crisis fueled by international drug trafficking organizations, with drugs coming from China in the mail and from Mexico via a weak, porous border. That is why it is so important to have strong federal support in this fight.
Despite that need to stay ahead of a morphing drug crisis with multiple international sources, the Obama Administration decided to de-prioritize drug enforcement to reduce prison populations. As a result, the United States witnessed a sharp decrease in federal prosecutions – from 2011 to the end of 2016, federal drug prosecutions dropped by 23 percent. Meanwhile, during that same timeframe drug overdoses in the United States rose by 55 percent - from 41,340 to 64,000. It should come as no surprise that decreased enforcement against drug traffickers leads to more drug trafficking, more addiction, and more overdoses.
Fortunately, President Trump has taken the opposite approach and, while remaining focused on treatment, is also focused on prevention and enforcement. The Trump Department of Justice rescinded Obama’s misguided policy on prosecuting drug traffickers and has instead instituted several actions to help cut off the supply of deadly drugs like fentanyl.
In fact, many of the President’s initiatives have been aimed to benefit West Virginia. Under President Trump, the Drug Enforcement Administration opened a new field division to cover West Virginia and other states in Appalachia hit hardest by the drug epidemic. The Trump Justice Department assigned a special prosecutor to the Southern District of West Virginia to investigate corrupt doctors that illegally prescribe opioids. And just last month, the Trump Administration provided additional prosecutorial resources to both the Northern and Southern District of West Virginia to federally prosecute every trafficker of fentanyl, no matter the amount being dealt.
These actions by the Trump Administrations are already having results. Just last month, Mike Stuart, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, indicted a doctor for illegal distribution of opioids leading to the death of a patient.
The drug crisis devastating West Virginia requires a coordinated effort between the state and federal governments. It requires funding for treatment, increased awareness and prevention, and stricter enforcement to keep the drugs from coming into our communities, whether from doctors or street dealers. The Republican-led legislature has spent the past three years working on solutions and the aggressive actions of the Trump Administration are a welcome change from the Obama Administration. Together we can, and must, address this epidemic.
Maroney (R-Marshall) represents the Second Senatorial District, which includes Wetzel, Tyler, Doddridge, Ritchie, and Calhoun counties and parts of Marshall, Monongalia, Marion, and Gilmer counties in the state Senate. Since 2003, he has been with Radiology Associates Inc., which provides imaging services to eight hospitals in the Ohio Valley.