W.Va. Not Alone in Battle Against Opioid Addiction

Jul 30, 2015

We all worry about national security. We worry about ISIS and terrorism and cyber security, but the enemy within the nation is the addiction issues of our population and how it's ruining lives. - Gov. Mary Fallin, Oklahoma

According to a report by the nonprofit groups Trust for American's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the country, about 34 for every 100,000 people. The state is working to find ways to reduce those rates, but is not alone in its work. States across the country are grappling with the same problems. 

Oklahoma saw a record number of overdose deaths in 2014, reaching 864 that year. Neighboring Kentucky reported nearly 1,000 in the same year, more than half of which were due to prescription narcotics and heroin.

"Well, we've got a tremendous problem all across the country," Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said after a meeting of the National Governor's Association focused on the nation's opioid epidemic.   

At that meeting, a group of governors from across the country heard from Dr. Deborah Houry, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

"In the year 2012, there were 259 million prescriptions for opioids," Houry reported. "To put that into perspective, that's enough for every single U.S. adult to have their own bottle of pills."

In 2012, doctors in the U.S. wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioids, enough for every adult in the country to have their own bottle of pills.

Houry said as the number of prescribed narcotics rose between 1999 and 2012, the number of overdose deaths grew as well. Now, overdose death outnumber deaths from car crashes in more than 30 states.

"Think how much money we spend to keep our roads safe," Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said after Houry's presentation. "Whether it's on snow removal or writing tickets or having police on the streest, we do everything we can to prevent those [deaths]."

"We're now seeing an increase in death as a result primarily in heroin and opioid use and we've just got to step up our game."

Gov. Tomblin during a meeting of the NGA Health and Human Resources Committee.
Credit National Governors Association

The tactics used in West Virginia to curb abuse are not unlike those used in states across the country. During the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers approved bills to increase access to the life saving drug Naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose, and extend some immunities to people who stay with an overdose patient and cooperate with first responders, known as Good Samaritan laws.

Next, the state will look to needle exchange programs to cut down on outbreaks of Hepatitis B & C, diseases associated with intravenous drug use, with a pilot program in Cabell County this fall.

Beshear said Kentucky is starting to see success with a similar needle exchange program in his state, and recently implemented a mandatory prescription reporting system to cut down on doctor shopping. 

“Now every doctor, before they write that prescription in Kentucky, has to plug that information in to the system and they can tell if that person has just been prescribed a drug some place else," he said.

Other states have implemented similar programs, including Connecticut. Malloy said his state is working with other New England states to take on the problem of doctor shopping from a regional perspective.