We will give Gov. Jim Justice the benefit of the doubt about his stated conviction to fix the opioid drug crisis in West Virginia, but his words at a staged event this past week gave the impression of a boastful teenager wading waist-deep and unprepared into fast-moving waters — while completely ignoring the fact that there are already boats in the stream, fighting against the current.
“I’m going to fix it and absolutely if you’re in the way, you are just going to have to just get run over or get out of the way,” the governor crowed during an appearance at Marshall University where he announced the state’s next effort in the fight.
Well, OK, then, Gov. Justice. But there are others who have been at this for some time — collecting data, developing treatment strategies and putting plans into life-saving action — and you could have called people’s attention to that. Citizens need to know, governor, that we are seeing some success around the edges.
Justice made the trip to Huntington to announce in a press conference the appointment of Brian Gallagher, chief of government affairs and health care policy for the Marshall University Schools of Medicine and Pharmacy and Marshall Health Systems, as chairman of a new Governor’s Council on Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment.
Gallagher has his work cut out for him. For the past four years, our state has held the damning distinction of owning the highest overdose death rate in the country, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, with the mortality count climbing higher each year.
In 2017, with some counting continuing, more than 1,000 state residents died of an overdose, according to the CDC — a record for the state that once again leads all others in the drug overdose mortality rate.
So, yes, we are due some good news.
We’ll give the governor this: He went to the right place for his announcement. Huntington, the city considered to be ground zero for this plague, has pieced together a coordinated response to the epidemic.
There is a county Quick Response Team, launched one year ago, that serves as a link to professional care for people who suffer from drug overdoses. The team is aggressive and relentless, following up with drug overdose victims within three days of an incident, helping them into long-term treatment. They will go to private homes, check local shelters and even drive around town until they find whom they are looking for.
And the early results are encouraging. The number of EMS overdose responses, according to Cabell County accounting, declined 36 percent from early 2017 to early 2018.
Likewise, our state Legislature deserves credit, too.
This year, it passed a state mandate that requires all first responders to carry naloxone, an overdose antidote. The state’s Department of Health and Human Resources has encouraged libraries and public schools — elementary through high school — to stock up on the lifesaving drug.
Also, in January of this year, as reported by Politico Magazine, Dr. Rahul Gupta, before resigning from his post as commissioner and state health officer for the DHHR, directed his staff to dive into public databases to draw statistical sketches of who in the general population was at risk of an overdose. Gupta’s idea was to hand over a paint-by-the-numbers data-driven picture for lawmakers of how to lower the death rate.
One strategy to emerge from the data collection was for DHHR to partner with the Department of Corrections to develop a number of programs aimed at helping prison and jail inmates who are struggling with addiction.
One program gives assisted treatment to inmates with an opioid medication upon their release and then helps connect them to longer-term care in the community.
So, yes, if you look closely, there are a few positive signs pointing to a state that is making an honest effort to address a problem that has been allowed to fester too long. A CDC snapshot of 2017 hospital data showed that hospitalizations for drug overdoses were slightly down in West Virginia, even at a time when most other states across the country saw large increases.
And the death count this year trails the record-setting pace of 2017.
The idea here is to find what works and then fund it for wider application.
What works in Huntington, the thinking goes, may also work in Beckley.
Let’s hope so. But one thing is certain: It will take more than a single politician to get this done.
It will, in fact, take multiple resources in each and every community to row in the same direction.
— The Register-Herald