3:06pm: Hotline with Dave Weekley

A Special Session Can Save Lives

By Bob Hansen and Lee Storrow

It’s no secret that the opioid epidemic has hit West Virginia hard. Overdose death rates have doubled over the last 15 years. Then along comes the COVID pandemic, with increased isolation and job loss, and overdose deaths have now reached a crisis level. Fortunately, we have many dedicated leaders working on the ground in Huntington and across the state, and we’re making progress. But more can and needs to be done. We urgently need to implement big policy ideas to reduce death from substance use.

One proven solution to support people who use drugs and help them quit is increasing access to methadone. Unfortunately, methadone got a bad rap due to misinformation and stigma, but it isn’t warranted. Methadone was the first medication approved for opioid use disorder. Decades of research have shown it to be safe and effective in reducing drug use, overdose deaths, and transmissions of HIV & viral hepatitis. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Justice reinforced the vital role of methadone by releasing guidance stating employers who discriminate against people taking prescription drugs to treat opioid use disorder are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Unfortunately, West Virginia has had a moratorium that restricts any additional methadone providers from opening treatment programs. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, 20 states have restrictions regarding methadone providers, but West Virginia is the only state with a moratorium.

There is some hopeful news. Our elected state leaders made significant progress toward overturning the moratorium during this year’s legislative session. Two separate bills were introduced in the West Virginia House of Delegates to overturn the policy that has blocked an increase in, and access to, treatment centers.

Delegate Jennings and Delegate Rohrbach introduced HB 4607, and it passed unanimously in the West Virginia House Health and Human Resources Committee. On February 23, it passed the House of Delegates with bipartisan support. The bill also unanimously passed the West Virginia Senate Health and Human Resources Committee. But unfortunately, it wasn’t brought up for a final vote in the full Senate on the last day of the legislative session due to time constraints. We cannot allow this legislation to remain stalled.

Strong support from both sides of the aisle and the chairs of the health committees indicate that the question is not if but when we will overturn the moratorium. Therefore, we urge our Governor to include policy changes to overturn the OTP moratorium during any special sessions. Then, he can open the door to saving more lives. And, when there’s a health crisis and rising death rate, every day, every week, matters.

The legislature and administration should look towards models to overturn the moratorium to ensure high-quality services for the state. Rather than limiting services to only private businesses, we should look toward policy incentivizing existing entities advancing public health to open methadone clinics. For example, West Virginia has leading experts at WVU and Marshall University with years of expertise in medication-assisted treatment. Our state and its people would immensely benefit if we could integrate methadone services into our existing clinics.

If West Virginia wants to be a model leader in providing access to quality services, legislation should prioritize giving methadone treatment authority to hospitals, medical schools, federally qualified health centers, and comprehensive behavioral health centers. Then, we should require all providers to submit regular reports to the West Virginia Bureau for Behavioral Health so we can monitor the success of the programs.

There’s never been a more urgent time to support our neighbors, family members, and West Virginians who need or want to quit using drugs. Let’s prioritize increasing access to methadone treatment to combat overdose deaths in our state. And save lives.

• Bob Hansen, who lives in Huntington, is the former director of the West Virginia Office on Drug Control Policy. Lee Storrow is the regional and national policy director for the non-profit Community Education Group, serving West Virginia and Appalachia.

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