WV First Foundation begins the long, hard struggle to combat the state’s opioid crisis

The members of the West Virginia First Foundation gathered for the first time this week in Charleston, and newly elected chairman Matt Harvey said it was evident the board has serious work ahead.

Harvey, who serves as prosecuting attorney for Jefferson County, said on Talkline this week that ensuring hundreds of millions of dollars in opioid settlement money is spent effectively in dealing with the state’s opioid crisis is “a tremendous task” and a “heavy responsibility.”

West Virginia will have about $800 million (after lawyers’ fees) from opioid lawsuit settlements. One-fourth of the money goes to county and local governments that have been impacted by the opioid epidemic, and the rest will be managed by the Foundation.

The Foundation must follow specific guidelines on how to distribute the funds, focusing on strategies to deal with the epidemic. Harvey said the Foundation wants to hear from those already battling the crisis to help them make their decisions.

“We’ll be able to pull in experts in these areas of prevention, enforcement and treatment around the state to tell us as the board and executive director what works, what doesn’t work, what is suitable for a particular area, what’s not and what’s needed,” Harvey said.

The settlement money will not come all at once. The first drawdown is $300 million, and the remaining amount will arrive in the coming years. Harvey said the Foundation expects to “preserve these funds into the future for as long as they are needed.”

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The pain pill dumping here by drug companies, pill mill doctors and pharmacies put West Virginia on a disastrous course of rampant addiction. West Virginia has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic more than any other state.

Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Eric Eyre chronicled in the Gazette-Mail* how over six years, “drug wholesalers showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills.” Our state deserves this money, but the challenge will be to use it wisely. This sizable pot of money means lots of hands will be reaching out for funds, some with “silver bullet” false promises of results. The Foundation must be wary of those pitches.

There is no easy path here. Simply throwing people with substance abuse disorder in jail or limiting treatment to one 30-day stay in a rehab facility won’t work. However, there are effective strategies that are usually multi-tiered. They run from prevention through extended treatment and often lifetime recovery efforts, and include trying to get those in recovery reunited with family and back into the workforce.

This week’s meeting was organizational. The Foundation has a long road ahead, but if the members appropriate the windfall of funds judiciously and keep to the mission of using evidence-based strategies, maybe West Virginia can find a way out of this epidemic, saving lives and minimizing the heartache of addiction in the process.

*(Eyre also wrote a book about the opioid epidemic—Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic.)


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