West Virginia has taken several steps in the last few years to fight the opioid epidemic and a recent action by the U.S. Senate will help with the effort, West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael said this week.

Carmichael praised the U.S. Senate for passing the Opioid Crisis Response Act last week by a vote of 99 to 1. The Opioid Crisis Response Act, a comprehensive opioid response package composed of 70 individual bills, will support West Virginia’s local and statewide efforts to combat the deadly opioid epidemic, he said.

“Today’s historic vote has brought hope to West Virginians and the millions of Americans who have suffered for too long from our nation’s deadly opioid epidemic,” Carmichael said. 

Carmichael commended the Senate, including West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, a co-sponsor of the bill.

“I am confident that this critical opioid response package, which will fund treatment and prevention efforts while also increasing enforcement against those that supply illegal drugs, such as fentanyl, to our communities, will help save hundreds of thousands of lives and turn the tide against this deadly epidemic,” Carmichael said.

“West Virginia looks forward to working in partnership with leaders in Washington to implement the solutions highlighted throughout this important legislative package, in order to ensure West Virginians receive the assistance they need to lead a healthy and successful life,” Carmichael said.

A key provision within the Opioid Crisis Response Act is the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, also known as the STOP Act, which would increase the United States’ mail security by requiring the United States Postal Service to collect electronic information on mail entering the U.S. in order to stop fentanyl and other deadly synthetic drugs from entering the country.

According to data from the CDC, out of more than 72,000 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2017, fentanyl and fentanyl analogs were responsible for approximately 30,000 overdose deaths — nearly 42 percent of all overdose deaths.

“Synthetic opioids and fentanyl have wreaked havoc on families and communities across our state in recent years,” Carmichael said.

The latest data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that since 2010, deaths related to synthetic opioid use have quadrupled, from 102 to 435 deaths, he said.

“It’s reassuring to know that our leaders in Washington have taken the necessary steps to close the loopholes in our current federal laws so drug traffickers can no longer exploit a major weakness that was in our mail service’s security systems for years,” Carmichael said.

The surge in synthetic opioids prompted the federal government last fall to open the first new Drug Enforcement Administration field division in 20 years in Louisville, Kentucky to help with drug issues in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. 

More recently, in July, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge (S.O.S.), a new program that seeks to reduce the supply of deadly synthetic opioids and identify wholesale distribution networks and international and domestic suppliers in 10 regions with the highest drug overdose rates in the nation. Two of these regions include the Northern and Southern Districts of West Virginia.

Also on the national level, on Aug. 29, President Donald Trump announced the granting of a record $91 million to support the Drug-Free Communities Initiative, which aims to support 730 “drug-free communities” across the United States that have been hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. 

Carmichael said $1 million of that funding was granted to eight West Virginia programs to help bolster substance abuse prevention efforts across West Virginia communities, especially among youth.

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The recent federal action will boost state efforts to battle a problem that is placing an ever-increasing strain on resources at all levels, Carmichael said.

“This is stressing all of our social safety net systems. It’s putting incredible stress on them across the board,” he said.

Since 2015 on the state level, West Virginia has passed and signed into law 35 bills to counter the opioid crisis, using a three-pronged approach to address this epidemic: treatment, education and criminal prosecution.

Among those bills is SB 401, which removes a significant financial burden on 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 only the second state in the country to pass this law.

“We’re the second state in the nation to do this. There’s only one other, and it’s New Jersey. We now require private health insurers to cover for six months of inpatient treatment with no prior diagnosis,” Carmichael said. “These three four or five-day programs have enormous recidivism rates. It takes a concentrated period to affect one’s behavior as it relates to addiction.”

The Legislature has also passed several bills into law that increased access to opioid antagonists for healthcare providers, pharmacists, and school nurses. These medications can be administered to save the lives of West Virginians who have overdosed on opioids, Carmichael said.

Last month, the West Virginia Health Statistics Center reported that drug overdose deaths increased to 1,011 in 2017 — the first time that drug overdose fatalities surpassed 1,000. Eight hundred seventy of those were related to opioid use, accounting for more than 86 percent of all fatalities. Additionally, preliminary data shows that 498 drug overdose deaths have occurred in the first six months of 2018.

Treating an addition that has already taken hold, or an overdose that has already occurred, is one thing, but it’s only part of the puzzle. A fundamental shift in society away from drug use also must occur, Carmichael said. That’s why focusing on prevention is another important angle, he said.

Additionally, the legislature passed and the Governor signed into law HB 2195, which requires a comprehensive drug awareness and prevention program to be implemented in all public schools no later than the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Carmichael said it is essential to change the mindset of young West Virginians so that future generations do not fall victim to the same traps of drug addiction.

Local governments also must have the freedom to address their own needs, without restriction at the federal and state levels as to what programs grant funding can be used for, Carmichael said.

“There is money going to entities within the local counties municipalities that have a lot of flexibility so that we’re not directing them how to use it. You know in your community how best to address this drug epidemic,” Carmichael said. “We really are trying to avoid a one-size-fits-all prescription that is controlled from Charleston or Washington.”

The opioid epidemic is most pronounced in areas of economic decline, Carmichael said. When people have more opportunities to lead successful lives, they are less likely to turn to drug abuse, he said.

The Legislature also passed a law to give those in recovery a second chance.

“One of the components is a second-chance bill. People who got addicted get into the system and now they have a record. Now they become almost unemployable. We passed legislation that says, over a period of time, if you’re clean, you can have that expunged and you don’t have to report it to your potential employer. That’s a way to help a person who made a mistake get back to being a productive citizen,” Carmichael said.

While it’s impossible to legislate the opioid epidemic away, the combination of federal and state laws should help, Carmichael said.

“The strong leadership and actions demonstrated by President Trump and his administration to counter our nation’s deadly opioid epidemic have been critical in improving our local and statewide treatment, prevention, and enforcement efforts, and are helping to put West Virginia on a path to recovery,” Carmichael said.