Northern West Virginia high school hosts public forum on opioids — but U.S. Rep. who organized it is absent

By CONOR GRIFFITH

The State Journal

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — University High School held a public forum on opioids Monday. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., organized the event but wasn’t present.

Rod Rogers, McKinley’s district director, said he planned to attend in McKinley’s place. However, he started the day in Charleston and ended up having to travel to Washington, D.C., to vote on tax legislation.

Although some of those in attendance decried McKinley’s absence, the forum proceeded and representatives from state and federal agencies weighed in on the drug epidemic.

Karl Colder of the Drug Enforcement Administration said there are only 14 DEA agents who manage West Virginia. He also said overdose scenes are now treated as crime scenes. Those 14 agents are now working on the appropriate retraining of law enforcement and community education to make that happen. He also noted that law enforcement, mental health, the medical community and other stakeholders are coming together in ways they didn’t before.

“We’re all now talking. That didn’t happen before,” Colder said. “People with the disorders are now talking with law enforcement.”

Colder said West Virginia will move over to the DEA’s Louisville Division in January, which puts the Mountain State in the same region as Tennessee and Kentucky. He said this would better enable West Virginia to get federal resources. He added that China is beginning to schedule the chemicals and analogues that go into producing synthetic opioids, something that hadn’t taken place before.

Jim Johnson, another panelist and director of the West Virginia Drug Control Policy, said tackling the drug crisis will be a long process. Figuring out how better to address the crimes committed by people who are addicted to drugs is a major challenge.

“We know what to do with people who are addicted to money. They belong in the criminal justice system,” Johnson said. “What do we do with 22 million people who are addicted to controlled substances?”

The audience voiced their questions and concerns, many of which were intended for McKinley. While forum moderator Hoppy Kercheval said these concerns were being noted for the congressman, Rogers declined to answer.

Ace Parsi, a member of Mountaineers For Progress, said McKinley has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”) and cut funding to Medicaid, which pays for most of the state’s drug treatment program.

Julie Bozarth, director of therapy and social services for Clarksburg-Highland Hospital and one of the panelists, said more than 90 percent of her patients are covered through Medicaid. Even as it is, she said, more resources and funding are needed.

Panelist Dr. James Berry, medical director at Chestnut Ridge Center, said about 98 percent of his patients are being helped because of the Medicaid expansion brought about by the Affordable Care Act.

Among the attendees was Matt Kerner, executive director of Buckhannon-based Oppurtunity House, a nonprofit organization that provides support for those going through the recovery process. He noted the long wait times for organizations, such as his and others along with shortages of beds was becoming an issue.

Tim Haught, prosecuting attorney for Wetzel County, highlighted the challenges faced by West Virginia’s smaller counties, such as the lack of treatment centers. He said little to no resources are available to get someone committed who might be a danger to themselves or to others while on drugs.

“Parents should be able to do it before their kids are arrested for armed robbery,” he said, noting that jail is often the only option counties have for drug offenders even though the jails lack the resources to treat them.

Staff writer Conor Griffith can be reached by at 304-395-3168 or by email at [email protected]

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