The opioid epidemic in West Virginia has many ugly sides to it, from the overabundance of health-care providers running pill mills to the state’s foster care system bursting at the seams. The full gravity of the West Virginia Opioid Crisis is now becoming visible to the rest of the nation.
For people addicted to opioids, not much is easy in West Virginia — and life is getting tougher. People of every race, ethnicity, age and gender have been affected by overdose deaths in some way. And the crisis continues to spread across the U.S., with the highest overdose rates occurring not just in West Virginia, but also New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio and Rhode Island.
The impact on children is devastating. In West Virginia, four out of five children in the state’s foster care system are there due to neglect or abuse at the hands of drug addicted parents.
Behind the Opioid Epidemic
Across the U.S., 130 people die each day from opioid-related overdoses. This crisis is propelled by the widespread misuse of prescription medications and illegally obtained opioids. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50 years old. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 2 million Americans use opioids or are addicted to them.
In 2018, more than 67,000 drug overdose fatalities were reported in the United States. Of those deaths, almost 47,000 were related to opioids. The synthetic opioid fentanyl was responsible for more than 28,000 deaths. Overall, opioids made up 70 percent of all drug overdose deaths in the nation. Drug overdose fatalities more than doubled in the United States between the years 2000-2016.
Claiming the highest opioid overdose death rate in the United States since 2010, West Virginia is at the center of the ongoing opioid crisis. In 2016, West Virginia had a drug overdose death rate of 52 people for every 100 000 persons. That’s more than 250 percent higher than the national rate of 19.8 people per 100 000 persons.
Opioid Pill Mills
Fueling the opioid crisis in West Virginia are the many individuals running pill mills. In 2018, West Virginia was rated among the top 10 states in the nation for opioid prescriptions written by medical professionals.
In response to these pill mills, the Appalachian Region Prescription Opioid Strike Force has made many arrests. Just last April, federal authorities charged 60 individuals, including 53 medical professionals, with illegally distributing more than 23 million pills across West Virginia.
In September 2019, federal charges were filed against 11 more doctors for allegedly running pill mills. These suspects are also facing federal charges and stand accused of distributing an additional 17 million pills. According to one of the federal indictments, one doctor was reported to be taking calls from individuals, then meeting them in a parking lot and writing out prescriptions for codeine, hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Civil litigation measures are being sought against opioid manufacturers in an effort to hold them more accountable for the epidemic. With the federal, state and local law enforcement crackdowns, addicted patients were eventually cut off from access to prescription opioid medications. However, even though the risk of addiction to these powerful drugs is very well known, the easy access to them through unethical health-care providers still remains a large threat.
But deaths alone do not capture the full tragedy of this public health crisis. The opioid epidemic has made victims out of thousands of West Virgina children, as well.
The number of children in West Virginia’s foster care system has increased by 67 percent since 2013. This increase is being attributed to children being removed from parents who are addicted to opioids. Children removed from homes are not the only ones filling the state’s foster care system.
A representative from West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources told lawmakers the foster care system had almost 780 runaways last year. Many of the children ran away due to opioid use in the home. That number is expected to be higher this year. Those runaways in foster care are the lucky ones; 12 percent of reported runaways in the state have disappeared altogether.
Fighting the Epidemic
The continued surge in opioid overdoses in West Virginia requires an increase in prevention and treatment efforts throughout the state. One result is that communities and government agencies are working to increase prescription drug monitoring programs. The programs will set standards for health-care professionals when they are prescribing opioids as medication.
Also, lawmakers are addressing the drug crisis further by obtaining grants targeted to schools. The grants are aimed at providing support services to treat children traumatized by opioid use in their families. By implementing policies that would require schools to become trauma-informed, the children of West Virginia could be getting more help in the future.