President Obama will travel to Charleston next week to hold a community discussion on the prescription drug and heroin epidemics that have gripped West Virginia and the rest of the nation.
During the forum, to be held Wednesday, Obama will meet with an audience of educators, medical professionals, law enforcement officers and others who have been affected by the wave of drug abuse.
“Communities in West Virginia and in states across the country have been developing and implementing responses that involve all sectors of their communities,” said Keith Maley, a White House spokesman. “The president hopes to discuss local, state and federal efforts, as well as private-sector initiatives with those who are addressing the epidemic on a daily basis.”
Further details about the president’s trip to Charleston — time and location, for instance — will be available in the coming days, Maley said.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail is soliciting reader questions about the drug abuse epidemic. The newspaper will provide several of the questions to the president.
Drug overdoses have recently surpassed traffic crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. More than half of those deaths have come from prescription drugs.
The problem is particularly acute in the Mountain State.
“The nation and, specifically, West Virginia, are undergoing an epidemic of opioid prescription drug abuse and resulting suffering,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, said last month.
West Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of drug overdose deaths, more than twice the national average, according to a June report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health.
At nearly 34 deaths per 100,000 people, West Virginia’s drug overdose rate dwarfs the next-worst state, Kentucky, which has an overdose rate of about 25 deaths per 100,000 residents. The national average is about 13 deaths per 100,000 people.
The numbers are based on three-year datasets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they paint a picture of things getting worse in West Virginia.
The overdose death rate increased by 65 percent from 2007-09 to 2011-13.
West Virginia has made efforts to curb the epidemic.
A 2012 bill, passed at the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, updated the state’s prescription drug database to track sales, required stricter oversight of “pill mills” and included new regulations for methadone clinics, where people seek treatment for heroin addiction.
In 2013, Tomblin’s prison reform bill included funding for drug treatment for prisoners and expanded the state’s drug court system, to try to keep drug offenders out of jail.
Just last spring, the Legislature passed a law, again at Tomblin’s request, to allow law enforcement to carry the drug naloxone, which can be used to counteract the deadly effects of drug overdoses.
The bill also allows doctors to prescribe the drug to the friends and family of drug users. The West Virginia State Police has said it has no plans to let troopers carry naloxone.
It might be too soon to judge the effectiveness of these measures.
In 2014, 628 people died from drug overdoses in West Virginia, primarily due to heroin and oxycodone, according to preliminary numbers from the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
That number has remained relatively constant over the past five years, but heroin deaths have skyrocketed, rising every year, from 34 deaths in 2010 to 165 last year.
Nationwide, heroin-related overdoses nearly quadrupled from 2002 to 2013, according to the CDC.
The epidemic prompted the White House to announce a new strategy in August, which uses about $13 million to increase access to drug treatment and to try to trace the sources of heroin.
Obama has been to West Virginia only twice as president, and not at all in more than five years. He visited twice in 2010, within a matter of months, for somber occasions.
He and Vice President Joe Biden traveled to the Mountain State in April 2010 to speak in Beckley at a memorial service for the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion.
He returned a little more than two months later, in July, to speak at the memorial service for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., at the Capitol in Charleston. He was joined then by Biden and former President Bill Clinton.
Obama’s visit next week will coincide with the ongoing trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, in relation to the Upper Big Branch disaster. Blankenship is being prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, an Obama appointee who has made fighting prescription drug abuse a focus of his office.
“We have to do everything we can think of to attack this problem,” Goodwin said last month. “If we don’t do something to address it now, we’re going to see an even more dismal future for our state and for this region.”