By LORI KERSEY
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Dozens of people packed into a meeting room at the West Virginia Water Development Office in Charleston on Thursday for a discussion about how the state should respond to the opioid epidemic.
The state Office of Drug Control Policy held a three-hour public comment meeting to get input on the plan, which will be written by a panel of public health experts and presented to Gov. Jim Justice and the state Legislature.
The panel heard from representatives of local health associations, drug court administrators, those working in the treatment and recovery fields and some of those who are recovering from addiction themselves.
Last year, drug overdoses killed more than 880 West Virginians. The state has the highest drug overdose rate in the nation.
State health commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta said officials were pleasantly surprised at the turnout at the meeting but were not surprised at the interest in the drug epidemic.
“This was a very important piece of the discussion,” Gupta said. “Because we’ve always wanted these recommendations to be, on the one hand, ready to go, not be shelf-worthy. But on the other hand, we want these recommendations to be formed by people’s experiences and recommendations, and not just science. So we’ve got the national experts here and we’ve got the people providing the recommendations, so I think we have a very good sense of where things should go.”
Gupta said he thinks the recommendations should include limiting the supply of prescription drugs a person may get at one visit to a pharmacist. It’s also important to get some people into treatment after an overdose, he said.
Additionally, he said, education about substance abuse should start early.
“No child should graduate high school, or middle school even, without knowing the challenges of addiction,” Gupta said.
Part of the meeting Thursday was a presentation of an analysis of the state’s 2016 overdose deaths. The analysis found that seven of 10 people had a prescription for at least one controlled substance a year before their death. Four out of 10 had a prescription filled within 30 days of their death.
The analysis also identified select high-risk factors for drug overdoses. Of those who died, 67 percent were male, 54 percent were between 35 and 54 years of age, and 79 percent had a high school or lower level of education. Seventy-five percent of them were unmarried.
Jim Johnson, head of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, said the analysis will be helpful in working to reduce the number of deaths.
Johnson said responding to the opioid epidemic will take a collaboration between those working in the public health field and those in law enforcement.
“And I still go back to what I’ve always said in saying, ‘Look it’s prevention, it’s treatment, it’s law enforcement, intervention,’ ” Johnson said. “It’s got to be all together. I think that’s what you saw here is people saying, ‘Hey we’ve done enough talking, let’s do something.’ I think that’s why we’re looking at a rapid-response — to stop the bleeding.”
Gupta said meetings like the one Thursday help reduce the stigma around opioid addiction. That stigma can prevent people from wanting to get treatment.
“If you’ve been fortunate that it hasn’t hit you or your family, then understand that it can,” Gupta said. “It has no respect for any boundaries in terms of race, socioeconomic status, boundary lines of states or counties, your insurance status or not. It just doesn’t care.”
So far, more than 300 people have submitted comments to be considered in developing the plan, and Gupta said he expects more before the Dec. 30 deadline.
He said the panel plans to work over the holidays to write the report and submit it in January, when the legislative session starts.
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