Taking Action to Combat the Opioid Crisis in Southwest

Governor McAuliffe answering questions from audience members during his town hall in Abingdon.

Across Virginia, like so many other places in the United States, we are confronting an epidemic of opioid abuse that has taken too many lives.

The opioid crisis is killing our friends, our neighbors, and our loved ones — and, despite significant efforts so far, it’s only getting worse. Last year, more than 1,100 Virginians died of an opioid overdose, be it prescription drugs or heroin or fentanyl.

Southwest Virginia has been overwhelmingly afflicted by prescription pill abuse. This week, I traveled to Abingdon in Washington County, Virginia, to hear from the community firsthand what they’re seeing on the ground and how I can be the best partner in their efforts.

To date, we have taken many steps in Virginia to try to confront this issue head-on. In 2014, we created an opioid task force and my administration declared a public health emergency last December.

We have focused our efforts on helping people toward recovery, and assisting providers to implement better prescribing practices.

Many folks have severe, chronic pain as a result of on-the-job injuries, and they have legitimate prescriptions to help them get by. But doctors are prescribing far too many pills and they’re putting Virginians at risk. To slow the flood of pills into the community, we recently put into place new regulations that limit prescribing and increase monitoring checks, which should help moving forward.

Our new regulations also require that when a person with addiction is prescribed buprenorphine, like Suboxone, they also get counseling and treatment. Suboxone alone is not treatment, but combined with counseling it works, and can help provide a long-term path to a sober and productive life.

After my town hall in Abingdon, I spoke with community members and recovering addicts. Lori Gates-Addison, a representative from the Appalachian Substance Abuse Coalition for Prevention and Treatment, told me that the strong sense of family in Appalachia has always helped people get through hard times. But for the past 20 years, she told me the opioid epidemic has torn apart that support system. Today, one in three children does not live with their parents because of opioid abuse.

That’s why our reforms to the reporting process to Child Protective Services are an absolute priority. We don’t want to scare parents with addictions away from seeking the counseling and treatment that can help them and their children. In response, we’ve changed how CPS handles reports of substance-exposed infants, so that they can work with families to protect babies and provide treatment to mothers when a child is born addicted.

We know people with addiction can recover, and go on to lead healthy, productive lives. But often, especially with opioid addiction, they need help. That’s a tough one because treatment is expensive, as anyone who’s had a family member facing this issue knows.

To help with those costs, we launched a new benefit within our state Medicaid program just last month to help get treatment for eligible Virginians. This is a good step, but it would help many more people if the General Assembly would agree to expand Medicaid. Just in far Southwest Virginia’s two state Senate districts, about 23,000 people would be eligible for Medicaid under an expansion.

We must always remember that these numbers are real people, often with families. We have to treat this addiction as a disease, and this emergency as a public health crisis. I think we’re on the right track, but it’s clear we have much work left to do together before we can truly turn the tide.