WVPA Sharing

W.Va. Legislature committee hears insight on drug abuse recovery and neighborhood concerns

West Virginia lost 1,336 people to overdoses in 2020

By Autumn Shelton, WV Press News Sharing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Members of the West Virginia Legislative Joint Committee on Health met in the Capitol on Tuesday where they listened to testimony from state experts on how to support both substance abuse recovery residences and those who live near them.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams spoke before committee members about substance abuse recovery residences located in his city, once called “the overdose capital of America.” 

Williams said after taking office, he came “face to face with the level of addiction” present in his community. 

“Without a doubt, the greatest existential threat that is facing our state, our communities and our citizens is the epidemic of addiction,” Williams said. 

He explained that everyone wants those struggling with substance abuse to get help, but that they don’t necessarily want to live close to treatment facilities. 

“The fact of the matter is, we need sober living facilities in our communities,” Williams stated. “Those that provide thoughtful, consistent service – it is absolutely amazing how they are able to transform lives.”

However, the Huntington mayor noted there is growing “frustration in our neighborhoods.” 

“Individuals living in their homes are finding out that right across an alley from them, all of a sudden, a house is either purchased or rented. Then a bunch of people start moving in, and nobody has any idea as to what’s going on,” he said. In some instances, not even local officials know about the opening of recovery residences because they do not require business licenses, certificates of occupancy or require certain code inspections. 

“Those who are just in it for the buck – moving into a building or a single family house and just throwing a bunch of mattresses down and saying this is a sober living facility – I don’t want them in my city and neither would you.” 

He told legislators that public policy should require sober living facilities to at least be certified to meet fire and safety codes. 

Jan Rader, director of the Mayor’s Council on Public Health and Drug Control Policy for the city of Huntington, added that she watched the drug epidemic unfold. As the city’s former fire chief, she admitted she lost sleep worrying that a fire would break out in a sober living home due to lack of regulation. 

Matt Winters, Huntington fire chief, shared that while there are a lot of state organizations involved in recovery, “not a single one of those organizations is involved in life safety.” 

“We need that open, honest discussion that says there’s more to treating addiction than just treating the people,” Winters said. “We have to protect those people while they are going through this incredibly difficult time in their lives.”

Dr. Matthew Christiansen, Director of the Office of Drug Control Policy, was also present to speak before committee members. 

He said that in 2020 the state lost 1,336 individuals to an overdose. These overdoses were largely due to an increase in the use of Fentanyl – a synthetic opioid. 

To address this issue, Christiansen stated that several things have been implemented statewide including reducing the prescribing of opioids, distributing naloxone and expanding treatment programs. 

For individuals who are not ready to enter treatment, law enforcement diversion programs are being utilized. 

In 2021, Christiansen said that over 500 people involved in law enforcement diversions went into treatment. Additionally, Quick Response Teams, who intervene after an overdose, are in 35 West Virginia counties to offer support and make referrals to recovery residences. 

Looking forward, Christiansen noted that the state should “curtail the practices” of residence recovery operators who are “taking advantage of vulnerable individuals,” but that the state should “be acutely aware that we can’t limit the practices of the good operators who are also serving those people.” 

He added that his office advocates using existing laws, including limiting out-of-state recruiting, deceptive marketing, patient brokering, kick-back schemes, Medicaid fraud, code enforcement and fire building codes, to begin recovery residence regulation. 

He concluded that the state should also look into licensing programs that “look more like treatment programs and less like single family houses,” and he recommended training for recovery residence operators to “bring everyone up to a standard level of expectation of what it takes to run a quality recovery residence.” 

Emily Birckhead, executive director of the West Virginia Alliance for Recovery Residences, told committee members that there are 188 certifiable residences in the state with approximately 2,200 beds, and 38 Oxford houses. 

The National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR) provides best practice guidance for recovery residences, Birckhead continued. NARR assigns recovery residence levels based on care provided, ranging from a level one (lowest level of care) to level 4 (highest level of care). When a recovery home is reviewed, administration, physical environment, recovery support and a good neighbor policy are all considered. 

“We want them to be assets to the neighborhoods that they are in,” Birckhead noted. “For good quality programs, they do become an asset.” 

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