MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate Kendra Fershee feels grant funding is not enough to adequately address the opioid crisis in the Mountain State.
Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that West Virginia is eligible to receive nearly $28 million through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s (SAMHA) State Opioid Response Grants.
While that’s a huge increase over the $5.8 million in funding the state previously received, Fershee said the resources West Virginia needs are “astronomical.”
“What we need in the state right now is beyond what we’re seeing at the moment,” she said Wednesday on WAJR’s Morgantown AM. “I think the grants are a good thing. My concern is that with grants, it really requires people to know what they’re doing to apply for that money. Some people really do, but it’s very technical and can be very difficult. I know there have been some trainings, but I’m not sure that we should be requiring people who are on the ground and already dealing with a pretty massive crisis to have to pick up a new skill and make the case. I feel like we should be going out and doing a better job as servants, as elected officials that is.”
If elected this November, Fershee said she would want to have a person on staff whose job is to be a full-time grant writer. That individual, she said, would then go into the communities, know who is doing good work, and work with those groups to assure funding gets where it needs to be.
“My plan would be to send people out to find out where the greatest need is so that the requirement isn’t on the community,” she said. “The requirement is on the public servant, the elected official, to find out where the need is greatest and then make sure that the funding gets there.”
Fershee feels the pressure of grant application should not be put on the community and that, in some cases, the grant application process shouldn’t even need to be used.
“I mean really, if you have a set of eyes, you know where the problems are, and so we also shouldn’t always have a grant system, we should also be able to just send money into communities where it’s needed and make sure that money’s being used in the best way possible for the community,” she said.
For years, West Virginia’s health experts and lawmakers alike have cited the state’s bed shortage and, yet, seemingly no progress has been made.
“We need detox and rehab centers. We actually have, unfortunately, some beds that aren’t able to be utilized,” Fershee said. “They’re there. They’re available, but because people have moved onto methadone and there are rules about what kinds of drug addiction can be treated in what ways, that’s crazy. We have a drug addiction crisis. We need to be able to treat people regardless of what their addiction happens to be.”
But, Fershee said, fixing the opioid crisis statewide and nationwide would require a holistic approach.
“We’re at the point where I think we have a two-track solution. We have the immediate need of people who are currently addicted and dying at high rates in West Virginia, higher than any other state in the country,” she said. “My belief is the reason for that is that our communities are struggling so mightily, we’re having so many problems, people are so disengaged from communities that we can’t get any traction. We continue to slip instead of even plateauing.
“I think the way we need to focus our efforts is to make it easier for communities to simply say, ‘This is what we need. This is the problem we’re seeing,’ while larger entities take care of the bigger problems of building infrastructure, bringing in jobs, making schools strong so that companies want to move to West Virginia.
“Because that’s the number one challenge — is education isn’t strong and then companies don’t come, so our communities just continue to collapse.”
It also takes a law enforcement component, Fershee said — not in disciplining those who suffer from addiction but those who are feeding the addiction.
“We need to be enforcing the law and keeping those who are the dealers, the distributors from having access to West Virginians because what we’re seeing is we have been targeted as a state, as a dumping ground,” she said.
While many places through the country have speculations of others bringing in drugs from other locations, Fershee said that many of the drugs in West Virginia were first dumped here legally through manufacturers who used the Mountain State as a distribution site.
“And then that got people addicted and to feed their addictions they had to look for cheaper alternatives like heroin, methadone and fentanyl,” she said. “So yes, there is a law enforcement component to it, but not for the people who are using the drugs. We’ve been trying that, it doesn’t work.”