It has become clear that West Virginia’s opioid epidemic did not take a holiday amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
According to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdose deaths in West Virginia were up more than 40% from August 2019 to August 2020.
So, what does our 2021 West Virginia Legislature do? Lawmakers passed bills that many experts believe will only make it more difficult for those living through substance use disorder.
Such heavy-hitters as West Virginia University, WVU Medicine, Preston Taylor Community Health Centers, Milan Puskar Health Right, Monongalia County Schools and the Morgantown Counseling Center along with various clergy and others who work in the rehab field have signed a letter imploring the governor to veto the restrictive bill known as Senate Bill 334.
While we support these groups who have asked Gov. Jim Justice to veto the bill, he ignored any type of guidance or wisdom and signed the bill into law on Thursday. Now, it will be more difficult to operate harm reduction programs in the Mountain State.
Harm reduction programs have been shown to save lives and stop the spread of such diseases as Hepatitis C and HIV. However, in recent months, Kanawha County was placed in the national spotlight after an outbreak of HIV that many health care experts said was partially because the county’s harm reduction clinic was closed.
Patients who have substance use disorder shared needles and spread the deadly disease to others.
“The syringes are the thing that gets people in the door, and then once they’re here... we offer them primary care, education, treatments and wound care, and try to do whatever we can to help make things less chaotic for them,” said Laura Jones, executive director of Morgantown-based Milan Puskar Health Right.
Marion County Health Department Administrator Lloyd White has seen multiple success stories spring from the local Harm Reduction Program. He said the long-term goal of these programs is to save lives.
“To date, I think a couple of weeks ago, we had two individuals actually come back to the office, bring back their supplies and said, ‘we’re no longer a substance abuser,’” he told the Marion County Commission in May 2019.
We also support White’s previous assertion that the opioid epidemic is not something that can be merely arrested away.
Law enforcement is not the sole answer. Treatment that involves meeting the person where they are has proven far better than a punitive approach.
And, we also know that there are not enough in-patient beds to treat patients through traditional rehabilitation methods.
SB 334 requires one-to-one syringe exchanges, letters of support and necessity from city councils and county commissions before issuing a license to a Harm Reduction Program. Patients are now also required to have a state-issued ID to participate.
Experts say such restrictions will see participation drop if not cease altogether.
The worst part of the bill is that it contradicts guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to run harm reduction clinics. In other words, the heavy hand rules without compassion for the suffering once again.
Since Gov. Justice did not veto the bill, we will wait and see where this all leads.