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West Virginia's General Election is Tuesday, November 3. WVPB will be covering the statewide races and offering NPR coverage of the national elections.

W.Va. Race For Attorney General Boils Down To Opioid Crisis, Obamacare

Sam Petsonk and Patrick Morrisey are running against each other for attorney general.
Images courtesy of Zack Harold, WV Living, and the attorney general's website.

In West Virginia, the attorney general’s race between incumbent Patrick Morrisey and challenger Sam Petsonk boils down to health care.

That includes the end result of a lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act, ongoing efforts to increase resources for treating opioid use disorder, and the economic fallout accompanying the coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID happened, no one talks about anything but COVID anymore,” says Simon Haeder, an assistant professor of public policy at Penn State, who formerly taught at WVU. “You know, we've kind of come to start to accept that is with us, and everything that comes along with it.”

Who's running?

The attorney general’s position is a multi-faceted one, not only responsible for representing state agencies, but also for litigating on behalf of constituents.

Morrisey, a Rutgers University graduate with legal experience in private practice and Congress, is finishing his second term in office. He was the first Republican Attorney General elected to the state in 80 years, and his victory preceded Trump’s win in 2016.

“We've had a very strong record of accomplishment, and it's because of the combined experiences we've had in the public and the private sector,” Morrisey said in an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

So far, Morrisey has outraised his opponent in campaign contributions and loans by more than $350,000, according to the Secretary of State’s campaign finance reporting system. Recent donors to Morrisey’s campaign include political action committees for the National Right to Work Committee, First Energy Corp. and Contura Energy Inc.

Petsonk, meanwhile, studied at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He worked under former Sen. Robert C. Byrd, before practicing labor and employment law in southern West Virginia for the nonprofit Mountain State Justice.

“I represent coal miners across the state of West Virginia in federal black lung benefits cases, retiree health care disputes, safety and health grievances, wage and honor claims, discrimination and retirement cases,” Petsonk said in an interview with WVPB. “Mostly just looking out to protect what people earn in our primary industries in this state.”

The United Mine Workers of America endorsed Petsonk, a former legal intern for the union, in August.

The Affordable Care Act

Both Morrisey and Petsonk find themselves on dueling ends of an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a law for health care that took effect in 2010.

Sometimes called “Obamacare,” the law bars insurance companies from discriminating against people with preexisting health conditions. It also mandates that everyone carry insurance, although this condition lost all financial penalties in 2019.

Morrisey — one of 18 Republican attorneys general responsible for a lawsuit to repeal that individual mandate clause of the ACA in 2018 — blames Obamacare for an increase in health care premiums.

“The premiums are spiraling out of control,” Morrisey said. “We have real hard working people that are hurting pretty badly with the spiraling premiums of Obamacare.”

Referring to data from the federal Health and Human Services department, Morrisey said West Virginia went from an average premium cost of $261 in 2013, to $937 in 2019. Because the 2013 and 2019 numbers are technically from different datasets through HHS, the department noted in 2017 that the comparison isn’t perfect, “but the analysis provides an approximation for how average individual market premiums have increased since the ACA’s key regulations took effect.”

Haeder at Penn State says rising premiums are a little more complicated than that.

“Since the 1960s, we've had tremendous increases in health care costs and premiums,” Haeder said. “ The main driver of this is prices in American healthcare system — reimbursements for providers, prescription drugs and all those kinds of things.”

According to a 2019 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly 37% of non-elderly West Virginians in 2018 had pre-existing health conditions.

With the lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act pending before the Supreme Court, those with preexisting conditions run the risk of losing their health care coverage.

And Haeder says the state would also lose a large sum of federal dollars it gets through the Affordable Care Act, along with increased access to resources for treating substance use disorder and black lung benefits.

“The ACA brought access to substance abuse treatment through a variety of means to tens of thousands of West Virginians, by ensuring insurance coverage, and by requiring insurance coverage to include substance abuse treatment,” Haeder said. “The ACA also made it much, much easier for coal miners and their families to benefit for black lung benefits.”

The Opioid Crisis

Petsonk has called health care “the most important issue in this race.” He opposes Morrisey’s position in the 2018 lawsuit, which the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to consider after the 2020 election.

“I hate to say it, but it's a virtual certainty that the thousands of people we currently lose to overdoses will probably only grow larger in number if Morrissey succeeds in eliminating these federal treatment dollars,” Petsonk said.

However, the outcome of the 2020 race for attorney general won’t alter the fact that the lawsuit is already before the Supreme Court — some in the national political landscape expect the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to seal the ACA’s fate.

The attorney general’s office has a few other tools to address the state’s problem with substance use disorder and opiate addictions — for one, settlements.

Morrisey’s office secured a $36 million settlement from Cardinal Health and Amerisource-Bergen at the end of 2016, those being two large opioid distributors.

In February, West Virginia was one of 21 states that rejected another settlement proposal for $18 billion from wholesaler McKesson.

“Keep in mind that if I had accepted the national settlement, West Virginia literally would have been able to get only pennies on the dollar,” Morrisey said. “And I rejected it for that very reason, because other states were trying to apply a population-based formula and really harm West Virginia.”

He said that he is confident the state will secure access to more damages through lawsuits waged in city and county governments. A federal judge is slated to review those cases next year.

In 2013, the Charleston Gazette found through federal lobbying reports that Morrisey had at one point lobbied for some of the distributors the state was suing. The paper also reported that his inaugural committee accepted a contribution from Cardinal Health, following the 2012 election.

“We’ve got to get serious with litigation,” Petsonk said. “And the way to do that is, be more broadly collaborative. Look at the entire supply chain, work with our neighboring states, document our losses, work with our law enforcement to take our real losses and show them to the courts.”

Additionally, the Democratic challenger said he would work alongside the state’s Civil Rights Division much more often, to destigmatize substance use disorder in housing and work. Election Day is Nov. 3, with early in-person voting from Oct. 21 to Oct. 31. Registration forms and absentee ballots can be requested from each county’s clerk. The Secretary of State’s office lists each clerk’s contact information on its website.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.

CORRECTION: Sam Petsonk studied at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. An earlier version of this story said that he had studied at West Virginia University.

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