CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia will take a different approach to an opioid epidemic that is “eating us alive” with stepped-up efforts focusing on two of the state’s 55 counties, Gov. Jim Justice said Monday.
Justice told a news conference that West Virginia didn’t have enough funding to fight the epidemic in all 55 counties. Although statewide efforts will continue, the state will team with West Virginia University to assemble a plan that works.
“We know that everything that we’ve done thus far has failed,” said Justice, a Republican who took office in January 2017. “This problem’s been going on for years. I inherited this problem, and it’s there and just seems to get worse.”
West Virginia had the nation’s highest drug overdose death rate in 2016 at 52 per 100,000 residents, up from 41.5 in 2015.
The governor said the state plans to spend at least $10 million to create a model that will be tested in the two counties still to be determined. One county will be in the southern part of the state; Justice said he prefers Wyoming County. The other will be either in the north or in the Eastern Panhandle.
No resources will be taken from other counties, and Justice emphasized that no county will be ignored. He wants the initial phase completed in months, not years.
“I need to solve the problem,” Justice said. “And the problem is eating us alive, and we’ve got to stop it. We’ve got to come up with the perfect model and let it spread.”
To help lead the efforts, Justice named Dr. Michael Brumage as the new director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy. Brumage is assistant dean for public health practice and service at West Virginia University’s School of Medicine and the executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
Brumage replaces Jim Johnson, who held the job just five months until his retirement in January.
Justice announced efforts to fight the opioid crisis last year, and the Legislature passed a bill requiring inpatient drug treatment beds increased in existing or new facilities.
Although there have been stepped-up efforts in recent years by law enforcement to catch and punish opioid dealers, the state’s dilemma goes far beyond those using drugs. For instance, 83 percent of children in foster care are there because of the drug problem, said Bill Crouch, Cabinet secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources.
Justice said he wants to “solve the riddle” to the drug crisis that sets an example for the rest of the country.
“We know that it takes way more than an aspirin and a Band-Aid to fix this problem,” he said.