Calls for more addiction treatment options and funding, particularly for rural areas beyond West Virginia’s handful of cities, dominated a Thursday public hearing for pending substance abuse legislation at the House of Delegates.
Judges, physicians and recovering addicts were among the more than two dozen speakers at the 90 minute forum in the House Chamber. The recurring theme: Drug abuse has never been worse in West Virginia; its mostly rural communities are woefully lacking in the needed treatment centers and programs; and prison is not the answer.
Danielle Hines said her drug use led to a child neglect charge and jail.
“I got out and I still used,” Hine told members of the House Health and Human Resources Committee.
Hines said a residential treatment program in Parkersburg has helped her land her first job in years and regain custody of her three children. She added that she sees it helping other women and mothers, but only after many come from areas without these options.
Warren Cottle described himself as a Navy veteran with a degree in nuclear medicine who ended up homeless and stealing from family and friends to feed his drug habit. A Huntington treatment center has helped him stay sober for nearly a year, he told lawmakers
“The day that I decided to put OxyContin into my body, it opened very many doors that I cannot close for many, many years,” Cottle said.
Nicholas County Circuit Judge Gary L. Johnson estimated that 80 percent of the criminal indictments on his docket last term involved drug labs or related offenses.
“I get sick to death of sentencing 18- to 24-year-olds that don’t have any options,” Johnson said. “They’re addicted. They don’t know what to do. They try to support their habit.”
Dr. Stefan Maxwell treats the babies of drug-addicted mothers as a newborn intensive care unit physician in Charleston. Substance abuse plays a role in around 19 percent of state births, affecting 3,800 babies annually, he said. He urged lawmakers to support a plan he and other health professionals have developed to treat drug-addicted pregnant women. This plan envisions 30 centers around the state, and it would cost $1,200 per patient, Maxwell said. But he also estimated the resulting annual savings to health, social services and criminal justice programs at $60 million.
Other speakers talked about near-fatal overdoses, losing loved ones to drug-related deaths and waiting six or more months for an available space in a treatment program.
West Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of drug overdose deaths, according to figures cited by House Health Chairman Don Perdue before the hearing. More than 90 percent of those deaths between 2001 and 2008 involved prescription drugs. With West Virginia facing an inmate crowding crisis in its prisons and jails, the Wayne County Democrat also said that substance abuse played a direct or indirect in what put 85 percent of the prison population behind bars.
Only a few speakers addressed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s legislation targeting various forms of drug abuse. Among its provisions, it proposes increased oversight of clinics that provide methadone and prescriptions for powerful painkillers. It also would speed up one tracking system for pain pill prescriptions, and create a new system to track meth ingredients. The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee endorsed its version of Tomblin’s bill earlier Thursday.
Rudy Kidder of the state’s association of county sheriffs urged lawmakers to allow these law enforcement departments access to the Board of Pharmacy’s tracking database. Dr. Ken Hilsbos, a family physician, cited the bill’s provisions that aim to shut down clinics that irresponsibly prescribe pain drugs.
Hilsbos urged lawmakers not to penalize or deter the legitimate treatment of pain, which he called a mostly under- or untreated epidemic in West Virginia and the U.S.
Tomblin last week added $5 million to his budget proposal for drug treatment, intervention, prevention and recovery services. The Senate expects to vote on a bill next week that would allow counties to increase their property transfer fees. While helping with regional jail costs, these revenues could also support residential, in-patient and community corrections-level drug treatment programs
“If they’re going to invest in anything, we need to invest in treatment,” said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, the bill’s lead sponsor. “Instead of sending people to jail, send them to a treatment facility and help them get cleaned up.”
Associated Press staff writer Amanda Iacone in Charleston contributed to this report.