www.wvgazettemail.com Health http://www.wvgazettemail.com Gazette archive feed en-us Copyright 2017, Charleston Newspapers, Charleston, WV Newspapers Drugs vanishing at some VA hospitals, AP investigation shows http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170220/GZ0115/170229988 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170220/GZ0115/170229988 Mon, 20 Feb 2017 08:32:14 -0500 By HOPE YEN The Associated Press By By HOPE YEN The Associated Press WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal authorities are stepping up investigations at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers due to a sharp increase in opioid theft, missing prescriptions or unauthorized drug use by VA employees since 2009, according to government data obtained by The Associated Press.

Doctors, nurses or pharmacy staff at federal hospitals - the vast majority within the VA system - siphoned away controlled substances for their own use or street sales, or drugs intended for patients simply disappeared.

Aggravating the problem is that some VA hospitals have been lax in tracking drug supplies. Congressional auditors said spot checks found four VA hospitals skipped monthly inspections of drug stocks or missed other requirements. Investigators said that signals problems for VA's entire network of more than 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics, coming after auditor warnings about lax oversight dating back to at least 2009.

"Drug theft is an area of concern," Jeffrey Hughes, the VA's acting assistant inspector general for investigations, told AP. He said the monthly inspections could help the VA uncover potential discrepancies and root out crime.

Both the inspector general's office and the Drug Enforcement Administration said they have increased scrutiny of drug thefts from the VA, with the DEA reporting more criminal investigations.

It's not clear if the problem is worse at the VA than at private facilities, where medical experts and law enforcement officials say drug theft is also increasingly common in a time of widespread opioid abuse in the U.S. But the VA gets special scrutiny from lawmakers and the public, given Americans' esteem for ex-servicemembers served by the agency and because of past problems at the VA, especially a 2014 wait-time scandal in which some patients died.

"Those VA employees who are entrusted with serving our nation's wounded, ill and injured veterans must be held to a higher standard," said Joe Davis, spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The drug thefts will be among the challenges facing newly confirmed VA Secretary David Shulkin, who served as the department's undersecretary of health while the drug problem was growing. At his confirmation hearing this month, Shulkin said he was proud that the VA identified the opioid addiction problem before others did and "recognized it as a crisis and began to take action."

Still, the VA acknowledges it has had problems keeping up with monthly inspections and said it was taking steps to improve training. It also said it was requiring hospitals to comply with inspection procedures and develop plans for improvement.

It did not respond to AP requests made three weeks ago to provide a list of VA facilities where drugs had been reported missing or disciplinary action was taken, saying it was still compiling the information.

Reported incidents of drug losses or theft at federal hospitals jumped from 272 in 2009 to 2,926 in 2015, before dipping to 2,457 last year, according to DEA data obtained by AP. "Federal hospitals" include the VA's more than 1,100 facilities as well as seven correctional hospitals and roughly 20 hospitals serving Indian tribes.

The inspector general's office estimates there are nearly 100 open criminal probes involving theft or loss of VA controlled substances.

Three VA employees were charged this month with conspiring to steal prescription medications including opioids at the Little Rock, Arkansas, VA hospital. The inspector general's office says a pharmacy technician used his VA access to a medical supplier's web portal to order and divert 4,000 oxycodone pills, 3,300 hydrocodone pills and other drugs at a cost to the VA of $77,700 and a street value of $160,000.

Christopher Thyer, the U.S. attorney overseeing the case, said the employees were abusing their position to steal from taxpayers and "poison the communities we live in with dangerous drugs."

The drug thefts from VA also raise the possibility that patients will be denied medication they need or that they will be treated by drug-impaired staff.

In one case, a former VA employee in Baltimore pleaded guilty on charges that he injected himself with fentanyl intended for patients heading into surgery, then refilled the syringes with saline solution. Patients received solution tainted with the Hepatitis C virus carried by the employee.

Dr. Dale Klein, a VA pain management specialist, said some of his patients suspected they weren't getting the drugs they needed, including one patient with an amputated leg who had to do without morphine because a VA pharmacy said it did not have enough in supply.

Klein, who is part of a whistleblowers network called VA Truth Tellers, ran a VA pain clinic from 2015 to 2016 and has filed a retaliation claim against VA, saying the VA restricted his work after he voiced complaints. The VA has said it was looking into the claims.

Klein described several of VA's inventory lists as inconsistent or a "slapdash rush job." That concern was underscored by the findings from the Government Accountability Office, released last week, that drug stockpiles were not always being regularly inspected. Klein's attorney, Natalie Khawam, says she's heard similar complaints from other clients at their VA hospitals.

The GAO review, covering January 2015 to February 2016, found the most missed inspections at VA's hospital in Washington, D.C., according to a government official familiar with confidential parts of the audit. Monthly checks were missed there more than 40 percent of the time, mostly in critical patient care areas, such as the operating room and intensive care units. That adds to the risk of veterans not receiving their full medications.

The Washington hospital also missed inspections of the facility's pharmacy for three straight months, violating VA policy, according to the official, who insisted on anonymity to reveal findings that weren't public. In the last year, the hospital had at least five incidents of controlled substances that were "lost" or otherwise unaccounted for, according to the DEA.

Other problems were found in VA hospitals in Seattle, Milwaukee and Memphis, Tennessee. Milwaukee had the fewest, which the GAO attributed to a special coordinator put in place to ensure inspection compliance.

Responding to the findings, the House Veterans Affairs Committee planned a hearing on the inspection issue. Its chairman, Rep. Phil Roe, a physician, said failing to follow protocol is serious and "should not be tolerated within VA."

Supreme Court: Man who fell at MedExpress subject to malpractice rules http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170219/GZ0118/170219478 GZ0118 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170219/GZ0118/170219478 Sun, 19 Feb 2017 16:14:21 -0500 Kate White By Kate White The wife of a 71-year-old man who died about three months after falling while trying to get on an examination table at a MedExpress in South Charleston must consider the state's Medical Professional Liability Act in her lawsuit against the medical facility, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled last week.

In a 4 to 1 decision, justices agreed with a Kanawha County circuit judge and wrote, "We simply cannot accept the petitioner's attempt to frame the injuries [the 71-year-old man] sustained in this case as being unrelated to the provision of health care services."

Joyce Minnich's appeal of Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King's ruling to the Supreme Court argued the MPLA, which, among other things, sets caps on medical malpractice amounts, does not apply in this case because Andrew Minnich was not treated by a health care provider prior to his fall in the medical facility.

"Given Mr. Minnich's lack of medical care before the fall, the petitioner asserts that the subject claim is not a medical malpractice claim but instead a negligence claim which stems from the respondent's failure to maintain a safe environment," Chief Justice Allen Loughry wrote for the majority in a 17-page opinion. "Upon our examination of these contentions, we conclude that a 'health care provider,' as defined by the MPLA, did in fact provide 'health care' related services to Mr. Minnich prior to his fall."

Justice Robin Davis filed a dissent. In a separate opinion, Davis wrote she agrees with the "premises liability" claim filed by Joyce Minnich.

"The issue in this case as pled, and as developed, is whether the fall sustained by Mr. Minnich occurred in the course of his receipt of health care services at MedExpress. My review of the record compels me to conclude that the conduct that forms the basis for this litigation is not rooted in the provision of medical care," Davis wrote.

Andrew Minnich went to MedExpress on Jan. 25, 2013, with shortness of breath, weakness and possibly pneumonia. He had recently stopped using a walker in the wake of his hip surgery.

Jessica Hively, a medical assistant at MedExpress, met Minnich and his wife when they arrived and, the opinion states, evaluated Andrew Minnich in the triage area of the facility. Hively then led the couple to an examination room, Loughry wrote.

Hively left the room after allegedly directing Andrew Minnich to take a seat on the examination table.

While attempting to use a retractable step attached to the exam table, Andrew Minnich fell back into his wife. Both Minnichs fell to the floor and sustained injuries, the opinion states.

Andrew Minnich died 90 days later.

"The petitioner urges that the fall did not occur during receipt of health care services inasmuch as Mr. Minnich experienced the fall prior to his receipt of any health care services," the opinion states. "While the petitioner would have us believe that the fact that a licensed health professional, such as a nurse or doctor, had not yet undertaken a physical examination of Mr. Minnich controls whether this case falls under the MPLA, we are not persuaded."

Joyce Minnich was told by King to rework her complaint to incorporate the MPLA.

Reach Kate White at


304-348-1723 or follow

@KateLWhite on Twitter.

DEA agent: 'We had no leadership' in WV amid flood of pain pills http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170218/GZ01/170219533 GZ01 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170218/GZ01/170219533 Sat, 18 Feb 2017 14:58:27 -0500 Eric Eyre By Eric Eyre During the years drug firms poured millions of highly addictive pain pills into West Virginia amid a rise of overdose deaths, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had a shortage of leadership in the state, according to a DEA official.

"We had no leadership in West Virginia. We had none," said Karl Colder, special agent in charge of the Washington, D.C., field office, which covers Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and West Virginia.

Between 2007 and 2012, drug wholesalers shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia, while 1,728 people fatally overdosed on those two powerful painkillers, the Gazette-Mail reported in December.

Before 2013, the highest-ranking DEA agent in West Virginia was a group supervisor, Colder said. Now, the DEA has a Charleston-based assistant special agent in charge who reports directly to Colder. The agency also has hired more agents and set up tactical diversion squads in Clarksburg and Charleston.

"In the past, they were just supervisors, and they had to run enforcement operations," Colder said. "You had no leadership in West Virginia. This is the first time the community has seen the special agent in charge."

Colder, who became special agent in charge in 2013, and four other DEA officials were in Charleston last week to announce the agency will spend $500,000 on a program that aims to reduce heroin and prescription drug abuse in Kanawha, Putnam and Cabell counties. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.

The night before their press conference in Charleston, the DEA agents talked about recent national reports that revealed agency lawyers had put the brakes on enforcement actions against drug distributors, starting in 2013.

Following the reports, the DEA announced drug giant McKesson agreed to pay $150 million to settle a case, and wholesaler Cardinal Health agreed to pay $44 million in fines.

"We also were targeting their DEA numbers, their registration numbers, but, unfortunately, if you read The Washington Post, you'll know, unfortunately, there was some pressure," said Ruth Carter, the DEA's diversion program manager. "We were told ... you know."

Five former DEA supervisors told The Post they were frustrated by the sharp drop in enforcement actions. The former head of the diversion office, Joseph T. Rannazzisi, said he was summoned to a meeting in 2012 during an investigation of Cardinal Health. Rannazzisi told the The Post he was chastised for "going after industry."

Carter said a Department of Justice lawyer, whom she didn't name, directed agents to halt an ongoing investigation against Cardinal Health, the nation's second-largest drug wholesaler.

"One DOJ official told us we could not pursue Cardinal any further," Carter said. "That's the only thing I know that's true. Yes, they did. But those people aren't at DOJ anymore. Everyone at DEA, we want to do the right thing."

Carter later clarified none of her superiors tried to kill the investigation outright.

"We were told not to go any further," she said. "'You've done enough investigating. Let's just process the case.'"

Last month, Cardinal Health and wholesaler AmerisourceBergen abruptly agreed to settle a four-year legal battle with the state of West Virginia, which had accused the companies of fueling the state's prescription drug problem. Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen paid a combined $36 million - the largest pharmaceutical settlement in state history. The money will go to drug treatment programs that help West Virginians addicted to opioids.

The DEA agents also answered questions last week about a new law - passed by Congress last spring - that allows drug distributors to submit corrective action plans to persuade the DEA to stop investigations against the companies. The law also raises the bar for the DEA to temporarily suspend their licenses, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

"They can submit those to us," Carter said. "That's part of the reason some of these settlements have been slower. That is happening, yes, but if it's a continual, ongoing, egregious thing, that's a whole different story."

Colder said drug distributors hire an army of lawyers to fight the DEA when the agency investigates the companies and tries to sanction them.

"Taking action against them is more complicated, and it's going to be harder because you're dealing with very high-priced attorneys," he said. "They'll hire four or five law firms to represent them."

In a follow-up story, The Washington Post reported the nation's largest drug distributors have hired more than 40 former DEA agents over the past decade. The Post article described the hires as a "revolving door."

"It's the carousel," Colder said. "You have some of our retirees who go on and work for these companies. They're going to pay the big dollars, and whoever has the experience, that's who they go after. Hopefully, they're going in there to train people how to do things the right way."

Colder said there's nothing nefarious about DEA agents going to work for drug wholesalers.

"It just so happens we have truly qualified people," he said.

Reach Eric Eyre at


304-348-4869 or follow

@ericeyre on Twitter.

China carfentanil ban a 'game-changer' for opioid epidemic http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170216/GZ0115/170219647 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170216/GZ0115/170219647 Thu, 16 Feb 2017 08:52:04 -0500 By Erika Kinetz The Associated Press By By Erika Kinetz The Associated Press SHANGHAI - So deadly it's considered a terrorist threat, carfentanil has been legal in China- until now. Beijing is banning carfentanil and three similar drugs as of March 1, China's Ministry of Public Security said Thursday, closing a major regulatory loophole in the fight to end America's opioid epidemic.

"It shows China's attitude as a responsible big country," Yu Haibin, the director of the Office of the National Narcotics Control Committee, told the Associated Press. "It will be a strong deterrent."

He added that China is actively considering other substances for sanction, including U-47700, an opioid marketed as an alternative to banned fentanyls. China said the March 1 ban will also apply to carfentanil's less-potent cousins furanyl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl and valeryl fentanyl.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration called China's move a potential "game-changer" that is likely to have a big impact in the U.S., where opioid demand has driven the proliferation of a new class of deadly drugs made by nimble chemists to stay one step ahead of new rules like this one. After China controlled 116 synthetic drugs in October 2015, seizures in the United States of compounds on that list plunged.

"It's a substantial step in the fight against opioids here in the United States," said Russell Baer, a DEA special agent in Washington. "We're persuaded it will have a definite impact."

Legally used as an anesthetic for elephants and other large animals, carfentanil burst into the North American drug supply last summer, causing hundreds of unsuspecting drug users to overdose. The DEA confirmed more than 400 seizures of carfentanil across eight U.S. states from July through October. So lethal an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person, carfentanil was researched for years as a chemical weapon and used by Russian forces to subdue Chechen separatists at a Moscow theater in 2002.

New data from DEA laboratories suggests the supply of furanyl fentanyl is now surging. DEA labs identified 44 samples of furanyl fentanyl in the last three months of 2016, up three-fold from the prior quarter.

Though Beijing has said U.S. assertions that China is the top source of fentanyls lack evidence, the two countries have deepened cooperation as the U.S. opioid epidemic intensifies. Beijing already regulates fentanyl and 18 related compounds, even though they are not widely abused domestically. Since 2016, China has arrested dozens of synthetic drug exporters, destroyed eight illegal labs and seized around 2 tons of new psychoactive substances, according to the Office of the National Narcotics Control Committee.

But the battle against rapidly evolving synthetic drugs is complicated by the deeply global nature of the narcotics trade and the deeply national nature of law enforcement. Some online drug vendors host their websites on servers abroad to thwart police. All benefit by submerging their illicit packages in the vast tides of legitimate commerce shipped or sent by courier from China.

One example of the kind of global coordination needed to take down synthetic drug barons is the case of Zhang Lei, whom the U.S. Treasury Department designated a drug kingpin in 2014. China shared 4,221 clues with 58 countries and areas in the hunt for Zhang, Chinese drug control authorities said Thursday. Zhang was sentenced to 14 years in Chinese prison last year, according to one of his lawyers, Fan Renzhong.

In October, the AP identified 12 Chinese companies willing to export carfentanil around the world for a few thousand dollars a kilogram (2.2. pounds), no questions asked. That same month China began evaluating whether to ban carfentanil and the three other drugs. Usually, the process can take nine months. This time, it took just four. Good international cooperation and effective early warning systems to track the emergence of novel drugs helped speed the process, Chinese drug control officials said Thursday.

China's action is "a hopeful sign of political and strategic law enforcement cooperation," said Jeremy Douglas, a regional representative for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok. "But having legislation is a first step. The law will need to be enforced effectively."

Offers for carfentanil from Chinese vendors were scarce Thursday, but the AP quickly secured five offers to export furanyl fentanyl to the United States. Some vendors also pushed U-47700.

"One news I just got is that the carfentanil and furanyl fentanyl etc opioid analogs will be controlled in China on March 1 effective," one vendor called Ete wrote in an email. "So if you need them pls make it before that day. After that day it will be unavailable."

The vendor did not immediately respond to a request for comment from AP.

DEA going after heroin traffickers in WV http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170215/GZ0118/170219725 GZ0118 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170215/GZ0118/170219725 Wed, 15 Feb 2017 10:15:14 -0500 Eric Eyre By Eric Eyre The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will spend $500,000 on a program that aims to curb prescription drug and heroin abuse from Charleston to Huntington, agency officials announced Wednesday.

The pilot project targets drug traffickers who supply opioids to Kanawha, Putnam and Cabell counties.

"We try weed out those groups that bring heroin to the community," said Karl Colder, special agent in charge of the DEA's Washington field office. "We have to find that choke point."

The DEA also wants to reduce the diversion of prescription drugs by having discussions with doctors, pharmacists, drug wholesalers and manufacturers.

"We provide training to doctors and pharmacists, and educate them about over-prescribing," Colder said.

The DEA also plans to forge ties with community groups, to raise awareness about the dangers of heroin and prescription painkillers.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.

"By bringing together all of the resources of our local, state and federal partners, we look to loosen the hold this epidemic and illicit drug trafficking organizations have on the tri-county area," Colder said.

The Charleston-Huntington corridor becomes the fifth region where the DEA has brought its drug enforcement and prevention program - called the "360 Degree Strategy." Over the past two years, the agency has started projects in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Louisville.

Kanawha, Putnam and Cabell counties have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. The three counties reported a combined 214 fatal overdoses in 2015. On one day in August, 26 people in Huntington overdosed on heroin during a five-hour span. Two of them died.

Cecilia Brown, whose son died of an overdose after struggling with a heroin addiction for seven years, spoke at the DEA's news conference Wednesday, saying, "It's time to take action."

"I don't want one more person to die," said Brown, who lives in Kanawha County. "I don't want one more family to go through this.

"We're losing our sons and daughters in West Virginia."

The DEA plans to host a forum in May in West Virginia to talk about drug abuse and prevention.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

Louisville officials get 52 overdose calls in 32 hours as US addiction epidemic explodes http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170214/GZ0115/170219780 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170214/GZ0115/170219780 Tue, 14 Feb 2017 09:19:12 -0500 By TRAVIS M. ANDREWS The Washington Post By By TRAVIS M. ANDREWS The Washington Post The country's addiction epidemic is spiking in the Bluegrass State.

Between midnight Thursday and 8 a.m. Friday, Louisville Metro Emergency Services received 52 overdose calls. One particularly harrowing call involved a pickup rear-ending another car after both the truck's driver and passenger had overdosed on opiates. The passenger was pronounced dead on the scene, while the driver was administered Narcan, an opioid overdose antidote.

"When we say overdoses, we usually mean heroin, but that included alcohol, prescription medications, etcetera," Emergency Services spokesman Mitchell Burmeister, told the Courier-Journal. Of these 52 patients, 34 were brought to a hospital.

This was a notable spike, but Louisville has slowly become entangled in the countrywide addiction epidemic - one that includes not only opioid and heroin use but also alcohol.

As The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach and Dan Keating reported:


Multiple factors are converging to produce this corrosion of American health. Foremost is an epidemic of opioid and heroin overdoses that has been particularly devastating in working-class and rural communities.

Another killer is related to heavy drinking. Deaths of rural white women in their early 50s from cirrhosis of the liver have doubled since the end of the 20th century, The Post found.


In January alone, Louisville saw 695 overdoses from these substances, a 33 percent increase from last year, according to the Courier-Journal.

Last week's spike, though, seemed to be concentrated heavily on heroin, which Burmeister said has become increasingly available in the county. Robert Couch, medical director for Emergency Services, said he and his team had to use naloxone to resuscitate several of these overdose cases.

It is too early to point to a specific cause for this spike, but Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said, "What generally is going on when you see this is someone has introduced a batch of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply that hasn't been cut sufficiently. I'm afraid it's a reality we're going to see repeated far too often."

Fentanyl killed Prince, which earned the drug a certain household recognition. But it had long been problematic, causing hundreds of overdose deaths in the past few years. From 2014 to 2015, death rates from synthetic opioids increased 72.2 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's an incredibly powerful painkiller, originally intended as an alternative to morphine. Though generally given to cancer patients or people undergoing surgery, it has spread into wider drug culture. The issue is how easily it can kill. As The Post's Sarah Kaplan wrote, "The drug is so powerful that prescriptions are written out in microgram doses; a tablet the size of an average aspirin would easily kill you."

Opioids are, of course, also deeply addictive, leading some addicts to go to any length to obtain them - such as intentionally wounding their pets in hopes that a vet might write a prescription.

The fentanyl crisis, in particular, has grown so dire in Canada that "some funeral directors are supplying their premises with naloxone kits to reverse possible overdoses among grieving loved ones or the staff who handle the bodies of opioid overdose victims," according to The Post's Samantha Schmidt.

None of this is lost on Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who discussed the city's growing addiction problem in his Feb. 2 State of the City address. There, he announced the police department will be adding 150 officers and two new detective squads specifically dedicated to crimes involving narcotics.

"We're collaborating with the DEA on overdose death investigations to get heroin dealers off our streets, and forming a task force with other agencies, including the FBI, the DEA, ATF, the U.S. attorney, Kentucky State Police and the State Attorney General's Office, to pursue, arrest and prosecute our most violent offenders," he said.

These overdoes spikes have popped up elsewhere in 2017. Ohio's Montgomery County experienced 145 overdose-related deaths in January, which accounted for more than 60 percent of the autopsies performed by the coroner's office, which was running out of room for new bodies, CNN reported. During the first weekend in February, meanwhile, Ohio's Cuyahoga County experienced 14 fatal overdoses.

WV town sues drug firm 'sharks' over opioids http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170213/GZ0118/170219797 GZ0118 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170213/GZ0118/170219797 Mon, 13 Feb 2017 17:29:35 -0500 Eric Eyre By Eric Eyre A town in West Virginia's poorest county filed a lawsuit against the nation's five largest drug shippers Monday, alleging that the companies delivered massive numbers of prescription pain pills to the area and left the city to "clean up the mess."

Welch, population 2,200, claims the drug distributors created a "public nuisance" that has strained the city's sanitation, law enforcement and emergency services, while the companies "sat back and counted the money they made off their misdeeds."

"Like sharks circling their prey, multibillion-dollar companies, along with smaller players like local physicians, descended upon Appalachia for the sole purpose of profiting off of the prescription drug-fueled feeding frenzy," wrote lawyers hired by the city.

Welch, which seeks to recoup costs caused by the opioid epidemic, is suing drug wholesalers McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, Miami-Luken and H.D. Smith. The lawsuit also names Dr. Harold Anthony Cofer, a Mercer County physician who formerly had a practice in McDowell County.

Welch joins a growing list of towns, cities and counties in West Virginia that have filed lawsuits against drug wholesalers - or announced intentions to do so.

Welch alleges that the drug wholesalers didn't do enough to stop prescription painkillers from getting into the wrong hands.

"The [companies] received compensation in the form of millions of dollars per year for shipping volumes of drugs well beyond what a reasonable company would expect," Welch's lawyers wrote in a 32-page complaint.

McDowell County has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. Welch is the county seat.

"When the dangerous and addictive drugs caused harm to the public health of Welch residents ... [the drug distributors] were nowhere to be seen, but Welch was there to dispatch emergency services, run drug treatment programs, investigate drug overdoses, care for the infirm and transport dead bodies," the town's lawyers wrote.

The drug problem also led to an increase in litter, crime, housing code violations and clogged water and sewer lines, according to the lawsuit.

Welch's complaint also alleges that Cofer, who had a medical office in nearby Northfork from 2012 to 2015, wrote an excessive number of prescriptions for pain pills.

Last year, the West Virginia Board of Medicine investigated allegations that Cofer wrote prescriptions for two patients who later overdosed and died after taking narcotics that the doctor prescribed. The board ordered Cofer to drug screen patients, monitor their pill counts and enroll in a pain-management course in Atlanta, according to a consent order filed Feb. 23, 2016. The board did not suspend Cofer's license.

In December, a Gazette-Mail investigation revealed that drug wholesalers shipped a disproportionate number of highly addictive painkillers to Southern West Virginia. The region, which includes McDowell County, also shouldered a disproportionate number of overdose deaths.

McDowell County, which has 28,000 people, was shipped 9 million hydrocodone pills (sold under brand names like Lortab) over six years, and another 3.2 million oxycodone (OxyContin) tablets, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration records obtained by the newspaper.

The McDowell County Commission filed suit against the same drug wholesalers and Cofer in late December.

The drug companies have denied any wrongdoing, saying they shipped drugs to licensed pharmacies that filled prescriptions from licensed doctors. Cofer has refused to comment on the lawsuits.

Welch is being represented by Williamson lawyers Tish and Truman Chafin, along with Charleston attorneys Mark Troy and Harry Bell.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

Innerviews: Retiring doc prescribes proactive approach to Parkinson's http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170212/GZ0107/170219861 GZ0107 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170212/GZ0107/170219861 Sun, 12 Feb 2017 15:25:25 -0500 Sandy Wells By Sandy Wells He followed precisely in his father's footsteps. This apple didn't just fall close to the tree; it landed smack against the trunk.

Tom Sporck grew up in family living quarters above his father's ear, nose and throat hospital in Wellsburg. He worked there as an orderly and watched with fascination as his dad removed thousands of tonsils.

Of course he wanted to do that. He never considered anything else.

He received his ENT credentials at West Virginia University and taught for several years on the faculty. He started the cleft palate clinic there.

His resume includes fellowships in reconstruction and cosmetic surgery, a term as president of the West Virginia Academy of Otolaryngology and all sorts of lecturing and legislative activities.

In 1980, he joined a prominent ENT practice in Charleston. At 71, he still works part time, peering into the ears and throats of familiar patients at Ear, Nose and Throat Associates on Donnally Street.

It ends in March. Finally, he's retiring.

A special patient needs his full attention - Tom Sporck. In February, he was officially diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Other than moving a little slower, he shows virtually no discernible signs. Medication, support therapy and exercise (including boxing) are keeping the symptoms at bay.

He's philosophical about his plight. With a positive, proactive attitude, he looks forward to the well-earned rewards of retirement.


"I was born in Wellsburg, in Brooke County, in April of 1945, the last of the war babies. We lived above my dad's hospital, the Wellsburg Eye Ear Nose and Throat Hospital, until I was 18, when they built a house. We had an eight-bed hospital, two semi-private rooms and one four-bed ward and an operating suite.

"Mostly Dad did eye surgery and tonsil surgery. A typical morning would be five or six tonsillectomies. One time we did 12 from the same family on the same day.

"During my teenage years, I probably watched him do around a thousand tonsillectomies before I ever did one as a resident. I just figured I'd grow up and that's what I would do, and it has been a good run.

"When I was a teenager, I was the orderly. I would clean the room between cases, put new linens on the bed and wash and autoclave the instruments from the previous cases.

"Wellsburg was a very compact town, probably a mile and a half long, so you walked everywhere you went. My mother and I would walk from the hospital, do business with the two banks and stop at the farmers' market and pick up the produce, because my mom cooked all the meals for the hospital.

"I had about 130 in my high school class. I graduated in 1963. We had a lot of people who became quite successful, especially in the sciences.

"I got my undergraduate degree at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. I was always a good student, but I had to repeat the first year of German, my first defeat. That planted in me the seeds of empathy.

"I went to med school at WVU and did my residency there. During my residency and internship, I had a three-month fellowship at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed. I was there the summer of 1974. We were there during Nixon's resignation. It was an interesting time to be in Washington.

"I had a flirtation with OB-GYN in the summer of '69 when I was rotating at North Wheeling Hospital. I decided I didn't want to live those hours my whole life. It was a lot of fun to be there when babies were born, but I also was there for a stillborn and that pretty much changed my mind. I didn't ever want to have to do that.

"I met Vicky in the lumber yard in Evansdale, in Morgantown. I was with a friend and his girlfriend. She was looking for boards and concrete blocks to make shelves. I saw this good-looking platinum blonde with a pageboy and nice legs, and I followed her around. My friend's girlfriend and this blonde taught at the same school.

"I finally got Vicky's phone number from Claudia. After several discouraging phone calls, I browbeat Vicky into going to a football game with me.

"I rang her doorbell. The girl who answered the door was a brunette with a pixie cut. I said, 'Hi, is Vicky here?' She said, 'I'm Vicky.' That was the beginning, and it has worked out all right.

"The Vietnam War was still on. Vicky's mother's cousin Carl was Melvin Laird's deputy. He and Laird were roommates in college, and when Laird was in Congress, Carl was his chief of staff.

"Vicky had never been to Washington. We drove over one weekend and stayed with Carl and his wife. He took us on a tour of the Pentagon. At noon, we met Carl in the dining room. You had to be with somebody with a star to get in this dining room. Carl said, 'See that general over there? He's in charge of drafting doctors.' I asked him what I should do. He said to find a reserve unit with a slot for me and sign up. In February of '73 I was commissioned as a first lieutenant. I was battalion surgeon for the 429th Engineer Battalion out of Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

"I functioned as a general medical officer, like a family doctor. We took care of bumps and bruises and lumps and scrapes. In the eight years I was with the unit, we didn't have a single work-related injury. But every year, we would have several broken arms and noses from playing softball in the evening after duty and drinking a couple of beers.

"In July of '76, we went to the University of Iowa and did a cleft palate fellowship with Dr. Janusz Bardach, a world-renowned cleft surgeon. He had defected from Poland. I helped get the cleft palate clinic started in Morgantown about 1976.

"Even after we moved to Charleston in 1980, I continued my involvement in the cleft clinic by driving to Morgantown one Thursday to get there in time for a 7 o'clock surgery. We would see patients in the afternoon, and I would get back to Charleston about 10:30 that night. I did that until about '92. Our kids were getting older, and I needed more time at home.

"Roger Nichols, Ron Wilkinson and Jim Spencer made me an offer to come to Charleston. Jim Spencer started the practice in 1947. We were having trouble keeping faculty and having continuity in the university practice, and I'm someone who needs continuity. We decided to stay about three years and if we liked it, we would stay. That was 37 years ago.

"I'm still editor of the state medical journal. I'm still working a little, a day and a half a week. I'm going to hang up the head mirror the end of March. I have mixed feelings. I think it would be very difficult to just stop from going full speed.

"Parkinson's is such a funny disease because you can have so many different symptoms. Then you start to link them. For me, the first symptom was a diminished sense of smell. I can't remember how long it's been. I had another symptom, slow movement.

"In the summer of 2011, our daughter got married. When we got the wedding pictures back, Vicky said, 'Why weren't you smiling in all these pictures?' I told her I thought I was. In Parkinson's, one of the signs is what they call Parkinson's facies, kind of a droopy lack of tone in the face.

"I had longtime patients ask why I was moving so slow. I didn't think I was. Then I noticed a little twitch in the thumb of my left hand. I started to put things together.

"I went to see a neurologist and he confirmed what I suspected. That was Feb. 12, 2012. I felt pretty bad about it at the time. I wouldn't say angry, but I wondered what the rest of my life was going to be like.

"I quit doing surgery, but I still do office work, which has been very satisfying. So the last five years have been pretty good. Everybody's different. You can't compare yourself because there are so many different symptoms.

"We have an active Parkinson's support group in town. Through Advance Physical Therapy with Jamie Tridico, we have an excellent exercise program. They've found that boxing training is very beneficial to people with Parkinson's. We do that twice a week and she has another Parkinson's exercise program once a week. On Tuesday and Saturday we have the boxing, and on Thursday we have the more conventional exercise group.

"I've seen improvement, not just in myself but other people in this boxing program. It's called Rock Steady Boxing.

"I feel pretty normal. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or the next 20 years, but neither do you. So why worry?

"I'm probably going to start tying flies. I think that will be good for fine motor use of my hands. I will probably continue to play golf as badly as I ever have. I don't hit the ball as far as I used to, but my other friends in their 70s don't hit the ball as far as they used to either and they don't have Parkinson's disease.

"For a long time, Vicky and I were involved with the effort to cut back the use of smokeless tobacco by youth. The average age of starting to use smokeless tobacco in West Virginia for years has been around the third grade. Vicky would talk to third-graders in the schools about the pitfalls of using smokeless tobacco, and I talked to high school kids. I was active at the national level.

"I feel good about my life. There isn't much I would do differently. The fellowship I did at the University of Iowa was for three months. They invited me to stay and do a full year, but I felt they needed my help in Morgantown. If I had it to do over, I would probably spend the other nine months in Iowa.

"During my years in Morgantown, we had a visiting professor from Scotland, and we became good friends. When I turned 65, my son Aaron and I went to Scotland and saw Arnold. His home was a five-minute walk from the first tee of the old course at St. Andrews. So we played golf there and had the privilege of having drinks and dining with Arnold in the clubhouse. That was a life highlight.

"I'm going to get more involved with the Parkinson's work once I retire. I haven't done any lobbying for a couple of years and I kind of miss it. I will probably get more involved with that again.

"One of the main reasons I want to retire is my grandchildren, Caroline and Jacob. I want to spend more time with them."

Reach Sandy Wells at


or 304-342-5027.

Tom Price has long fought government role in health care http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170210/GZ0101/170219955 GZ0101 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170210/GZ0101/170219955 Fri, 10 Feb 2017 15:47:09 -0500 By AMY GOLDSTEIN The Washington Post By By AMY GOLDSTEIN The Washington Post Tom Price - congressman, orthopedic surgeon, warrior against government intrusion into medical care - was three minutes into a speech condemning the Affordable Care Act when he asked his hotel ballroom audience of physicians whether they all were on the list to get emails from the federal agency overseeing Medicare and Medicaid.

"If you're not, you ought to get on it," Price said. "Because, you know, everyone needs a good dose of nausea every now and again."

The Georgia Republican had already been a House member for a half-dozen years when he made the wisecrack at the 2011 annual meeting of a conservative fringe medical group to which he belongs. Now that he appears on the cusp of Senate confirmation as the Trump administration's Health and Human Services secretary, such remarks and his affiliations over a long career in medicine and politics shed light on the intensity of his beliefs - and show that he would lead a department whose mission and bureaucrats he has repeatedly deplored.

The group, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), holds positions that are at wide variance with basics of federal health policy. It opposes Medicare, the government's health insurance for older Americans, and it offers extensive training to doctors on how to opt out of the program. It also opposes mandatory vaccination as "equivalent to human experimentation," a stance contrary to requirements in every state and recommendations of major medical organizations and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such positions are part of an underlying credo, which Price has long espoused, that doctors should be autonomous in treating their patients - free from government rules, medical quality standards, insurance coverage limits or certain kinds of legal punishment when they make mistakes. The congressman's ardent hostility toward the Affordable Care Act, before its passage in 2010 and ever since, springs from that credo's antigovernment aspect.

Elements could be heard when Price testified last month at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. "Anything that gets in the way of the patient . . . their families and physicians making the decisions about what kind of health care they desire," he said, "we ought not go down that road."

Such lexicon dovetails with the motto of the AAPS, three Latin words that translate into "all for the patient."

While Price has long been explicit about his views, it is less clear how the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services would be affected if he is confirmed, as expected, in a Senate vote scheduled for early Friday morning.

"I've seen people with extreme views come into government and take the position very seriously, and I've seen people with extreme views come into government and pursue their specific interests," said Dan Mendelson, president of Avalere Health, a Washington-based consulting firm. "So I don't know which model will play out here."

For now, Mendelson said, he is seeing an uptick in job applications to his firm from HHS employees. "A lot of the best and brightest in government are starting to look, because they are worried about their operating environment, whether they can do their jobs."

Price was not available to comment for this story. Instead, a senior communications adviser at HHS offered: "The bottom line is that Dr. Price spent a career in medicine caring for Americans from all walks of life, including seniors and folks on Medicaid. It's why he knows the challenges facing our system, and why he has a long, public record in Congress fighting for patient-centered health care solutions."

A Michigan native, Price moved to Atlanta for a medical residency at Emory University and later set up what evolved into a large orthopedic surgery practice in a conservative, affluent community on the city's north side. He practiced medicine for 20 years before winning a seat in the Georgia state Senate in 1996. By then, he already had become active in fighting for what he saw as good for doctors and the health-care system.

He has spoken publicly of having been part of the AAPS's successful 1993 lawsuit, with other groups, against then-first lady Hillary Clinton over closed meetings of that White House's task force to draft a health reform plan. And during his eight years as a state lawmaker, he fought to limit doctors' exposure to malpractice lawsuits.

In 2003, when the legislature's two chambers passed differing tort reform bills, Price objected to the absence of a cap to restrict jury awards for pain and suffering in malpractice cases to $250,000. According to news media accounts at the time, his insistence on those limits during a conference committee was one reason neither bill became law.

"He is a right-wing doctor first before he is a right-wing zealot on every other issue," said Mark Taylor, who was Georgia's Democratic lieutenant governor at the time. "Whether it be liability or any policy issues about how health care is delivered, how it is paid for, how it is accessed, it is doctors - all day, every day."

The American Medical Association honored Price in 2001 as one of nine people to receive its highest award for public officials. The AMA cited him for working to improve home child care facilities and strengthen drunken driving laws and for sponsoring bills to "increase patient choice," create health savings accounts and change the Georgia Medicaid system. To this day, Price is an AMA member and a delegate to its governing body - a position he has said he will relinquish if confirmed as HHS secretary. The AMA, with nearly 235,000 members, endorsed his nomination.

Other groups that have lauded Price are less mainstream. In 2009, Price received an award from a small conservative group called Doctors for Patient Freedom. The group was founded by a Florida neurosurgeon, David McKalip, who leads Florida's chapter of the AAPS and is a past president of the Florida Neurosurgical Society. He gained brief notoriety that year after emailing to a tea party group an image depicting then-President Barack Obama in tribal dress with a bone through his nose. McKalip apologized.

A few months after the email flap, Doctors for Patient Freedom chose the congressman as one of three winners of an award named for a former AMA president who had fought Medicare's creation in the 1960s. Earlier news accounts have suggested that Price and other recipients shied from the award. But in an interview this week, McKalip said Price could not attend the awards dinner at a Houston restaurant because the House was voting that Saturday night on its version of legislation that became the ACA.

McKalip said Price called in to the Nov. 7 dinner on his cellphone from outside the House floor. A member of the Medical Society of Georgia, who was accepting the glass trophy for him, put his own phone up to a microphone so the 80 doctors in the room could hear Price's words. "We all cheered when he said he was going to vote against it," McKalip recalled.

The previous month, AAPS had given him its Shining Scalpel Award and praised him for "outstanding service to the American people and the profession of medicine by 'cutting' through the political rhetoric regarding 'healthcare reform,' and fighting for patient- and physician-centered healthcare legislation." The group's executive director, Jane Orient, a Tucson internist who does not participate in any private insurance or government insurance programs, said this week that fewer than half a dozen people have received the award.

The AAPS was founded during World War II to oppose "socialized medicine" and "the government takeover of the practice of medicine," according to its website. Today, it has a legal team that "defends doctors who have been mugged by Medicare or railroaded by hospitals using sham peer review." It has 5,000 members, of whom 3,000 - including Price - pay dues. Its mascot was named in 2002 with a resolution that said: "The Newfoundland dog does not bite the hand that feeds it, unlike governments are wont to do."

Orient is the editor of an AAPS quarterly journal. Its articles, which she said are peer-reviewed, do not necessarily reflect the group's positions. Over the years, some have asserted that the "gay male lifestyle" shortens life expectancy and that disabled babies of illegal immigrants are "valuable" for generating welfare benefits for their families. In spring 2015, one contended that the research establishing that HIV causes AIDS "is providing to be a substantial fallacy of modern medicine."

Asked whether Price shares all AAPS stances, the HHS communications adviser replied that doctors belonging to any organization "don't all believe the same thing," pointing out that the nominee for secretary is a longtime AMA member, even though that group has supported the ACA and he does not.

Price has, however, been active in the AAPS. He has spoken at two annual meetings in recent years and been on the agenda for AAPS virtual town hall meetings against the ACA.

At his Senate Finance Committee confirmation last month and a similar hearing before the Senate's Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, Price was pressed about some of his views. Asked by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, whether he would adhere to recommended vaccine schedules, Price responded that vaccination is "a very important aspect of public health."

He did not say whether he believes vaccines should be mandatory.


Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

With health law in jeopardy, more than 12M sign up for ACA http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170209/GZ0115/170209494 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170209/GZ0115/170209494 Thu, 9 Feb 2017 15:56:01 -0500 By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Kevin S. Vineys The Associated Press By By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Kevin S. Vineys The Associated Press WASHINGTON - More than 12.2 million people have signed up for coverage nationwide this year under the Obama-era health care law, even with the uncertainty created by President Donald Trump's vow to repeal and replace it.

A count by The Associated Press shows that many consumers returned to the program despite its problems. Aside from the political turmoil, those difficulties include a spike in premiums, rising deductibles and dwindling choice of insurers.

Although initial enrollment is about four percent lower than last year, the sizable number of sign-ups illustrates the risk Republicans face as they begin moving to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and put in its place a yet-to-be-defined conservative approach.

AP's analysis showed that a clear majority of those enrolled - nearly 64 percent - live in states that Trump carried in November.

"If they are going to replace it, it had better be as good or better than what is there, and if it's not I think it's going to cost them," said John Chipman, a drummer from Austin, Texas, who's also covering his wife and their two children.

This year the family scaled back from a "silver" plan to "bronze" to avoid a big premium increase. But without the health law, Chipman said he and his wife would probably be turned down for health insurance because of pre-existing medical conditions.

The federal Health and Human Services Department reported last week that 9.2 million people signed up in the 39 states served by the HealthCare.gov website, which offers subsidized private health insurance to people who don't have job-based coverage.

AP checked with the remaining 11 states, and Washington, D.C., and found an additional three million enrolled, for a national total of 12.2 million. A full national report from the government won't be available for at least another month.

Under the health care law, the nation's uninsured rate has fallen to a historic low of about nine percent, with some 20 million people gaining coverage since its passage in 2010. In addition to the subsidized private plans available through HealthCare.gov and state marketplaces, the law offers states the option of extending Medicaid to cover more low-income adults.

Republicans say this year's enrollment numbers do not equate to a success story for former President Barack Obama's signature domestic legislation.

To begin with, the numbers are well short of the 13.8 million people that the Obama administration had hoped to sign up. Also, the public health insurance markets usually see high attrition as the year goes on, with about 1 in 5 customers eventually dropping out. Some customers don't even bother to pay their first month's premium.

"It's clear overall enrollment numbers are trending downward for 'Obamacare' over last year, no doubt due to the law's unpopular mandates and high costs," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement. Republicans "are committed to establishing a responsible transition phase to ensure as much stability as possible for consumers who purchased insurance."

A Trump administration spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

One state - Minnesota - took extraordinary measures to keep residents insured. The state has seen premium increases averaging from 50 percent to 67 percent, and lawmakers used $312 million in rainy day funds to buy down monthly rates for consumers who don't get federal subsidies. Since most health law customers already get federal assistance, the bulk of the state money is going to residents who purchase plans outside the government-sponsored marketplace.

Supporters of the health care law say the political uncertainty about its future probably kept many people from signing up.

"We heard from consumers saying they thought 'Obamacare' had ended with President Obama's administration," said Elizabeth Colvin, who heads the health care sign-up program at Foundation Communities, an Austin nonprofit serving low-income working people. "Some consumers said, 'Why bother if it's going to go away?' "

Although Colvin said the confusion made it harder to reach consumers, her program signed up some 4,000 people, or about six percent more than last year.

"These numbers demonstrate that there's a demand for this insurance, and that people see value in the financial protection that comes from health insurance and the access it gives you to health care," she said.

Vincent Daley, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, works three jobs but none of them offer insurance. He signed up during open enrollment after missing last year's. "Insurance was extremely important because I had been through an accident before playing rugby," he said.

AP's national tally of sign-ups comes as the Senate is moving to confirm Georgia congressman Tom Price as the nation's next health secretary. Price, an orthopedic surgeon-turned-legislator, has authored his own plan to repeal and replace the Obama health law.

In confirmation hearings, he told senators that the new administration does not want to "pull the rug out" from people who now have coverage, and he all but acknowledged that there's no Trump replacement plan ready to roll out.

Independent analyst Caroline Pearson of the consulting firm Avalere Health said without the full support of the new administration, insurance markets will continue to struggle. "Insurer participation in 2018 remains uncertain, and some regions are at risk of having no participating plan," she said.

Health clinics, IDD waiver among cuts on "Alternative Budget" http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170208/GZ0101/170209522 GZ0101 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170208/GZ0101/170209522 Wed, 8 Feb 2017 23:14:41 -0500 Lori Kersey By Lori Kersey West Virginia's free health clinics, its tobacco education program and families of disabled people could feel the effects of "drastic" state funding cuts, should the state Legislature decide not to raise taxes and cut spending, Gov. Jim Justice's office said Wednesday.

Justice's staff laid out what the governor called a "responsible" budget with $450 million in new taxes and revenue and $26.6 million in spending cuts.

The governor also presented what he called an "Alternative Budget," that would cut funding to nearly 50 programs and colleges and universities if lawmakers decide against the new taxes.

On the potential chopping block on the "Alternative Budget," is 25 percent of the budget for the state's Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities Waiver program, which provides West Virginia Medicaid recipients funds for in-home services and community based programs. The funding cut would amount to more than $22 million.

There are already more people who are eligible for the I/DD waiver than the program can handle, said Renate Pore, interim director for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care. Pore said cutting the program would be terrible.

"That's one of the worst things that could happen," Pore said. "This is one of the most vulnerable populations."

Pore said if the program were to be cut, affected families would "raise holy hell."

The alternative budget would also cut 100 percent of state funding for eight free health right clinics statewide, for a total savings of $2.75 million. Free health right clinics serve 50,000 West Virginians statewide, said Angie Settle, CEO of WV Health Right in Charleston.

Settle said a funding cut could mean that some health right clinics close. Her clinic specifically would have to cut back on its number of patients, she said.

"We're going to have to stop taking patients, clear and simple," Settle said.

She added many of her clinic's patients work two or three jobs to make ends meet. They make too much to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford traditional insurance. For the current budget year, WV Health Right got $800,000 in state funding, which made up a third of its budget. Funding amounts are set by the state Department of Health and Human Services and determined by the number of patients clinic sees, she said.

Settle said already within the last few years, two clinics have closed. She fears if the state cuts funding further, more will close.

Pore said she is glad Justice proposed raising revenue as a first option instead of cutting programs during his first State of the State address as governor Wednesday.

"The alternative would be just a race to the bottom," Pore said. "I thought he was pretty impressive. He didn't make promises, he laid it out the way it is. I'll be supporting him in getting his agenda through the (legislative session)."

To combat the state's opioid problem, Justice proposed new treatment facilities and stiffer laws for drug dealers.

"If we don't fix the drug problem in this state, it'll cannibalize ya," Justice said.

As part of a billion dollar-plus roads improvement program, the governor proposed charging a 5 percent tax to companies that win bids on the project. The money would be used to combat the drug problem, including building a treatment facility in Charleston and one in the Eastern Panhandle, Justice said during the State of the State.

Justice also proposed helping build a veterans facility in Beckley. His speech Wednesday offered few details on the facilities.

"We absolutely have to have a pathway to get our people who are hooked on these terrible drugs back into the community and the workforce," Justice said. "We have to do something with all the prescription drugs, no question whatsoever about that. But we have to have treatment facilities too."

Dr. Michael Brumage, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said he agrees that law enforcement is a key part of fighting the drug problem. He added that he's happy to see the governor propose more treatment facilities for drug addiction.

Brumage declined to comment on the governor's proposed revenue increases.

"I just hope that as we move forward, that we'll see fit to leave in place the institutions and organizations that help improve and protect the health of our population."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

Give Kids A Smile Day to provide free dental care to local children http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170208/GZ0115/170209560 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170208/GZ0115/170209560 Wed, 8 Feb 2017 15:27:40 -0500 The Kanawha Valley Dental Society will sponsor their 15th annual Give Kids A Smile event to provide underserved children with free dental services from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at their location, at 3520 Teays Valley Road, Hurricane.

Nearly one-in-four children aged 2 to 11 years old has untreated cavities in their baby teeth, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many children enrolled in Medicaid receive no dental services throughout the year.

Give Kids A Smile is held annually to:

n Provide free, easily accessible dental services to qualifying individuals.

n Raise awareness of the epidemic of untreated dental disease occurring locally and nationally and create local public and private partnerships to increase access to oral health care to solve this crisis.

The Kanawha Valley Dental Society has been hosting Give Kids A Smile events for 15 years in the community as a way to provide free dental care to local children who desperately need it.

The American Dental Association (ADA) launched the Give Kids A Smile program nationally in 2003 as a way for dentists to join with others in the community to provide dental services to underserved children. Each year, about 350,000 to 400,000 children benefit from more than 1,500 events, all because of the efforts of 40,000 or more annual volunteers nationwide.

All children who are uninsured will receive an exam by a dentist, X-rays and a cleaning. Limited restorative treatment will also be done if time permits on this day after the exam and cleaning have been completed.

Parents can call 304-993-8358 to schedule an appointment, walk-ins will also be seen on a first come first serve basis.

For more information about Give Kids A Smile visit www.capitalcityGKAS.com or http://www.ada.org/en/home-ada/public-programs/give-kids-a-smile.

Investment firm sheds light on plans for old Sugar Grove Navy base http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170207/GZ01/170209599 GZ01 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170207/GZ01/170209599 Tue, 7 Feb 2017 19:14:37 -0500 Rick Steelhammer By Rick Steelhammer The former Navy Information Operations Command base at Sugar Grove in Pendleton County has officially been sold.

After posting a winning bid of $4.01 million for the Sugar Grove base during a sealed bid auction on Dec. 1, Alabama-based Mellivora Capital Partners (MCP) has successfully completed the purchase of the 122-acre installation within a 60-day period, as mandated by the General Services Administration, the partnership announced on Tuesday.

While MCP continues to develop a business model for the base, which closed on Oct. 1, 2015, it "envisions a health care campus for active-duty military, veterans and their families that will provide our nation's heroes with more advanced options for their health and wellness needs," according to a news release issued by the partnership.

"MCP's goal is to improve medical care through an integrated model that treats both the physical and psychological issues facing active-duty military and veterans, while simultaneously addressing their long-term needs such as a stable home life, job training and other educational opportunities," the release states.

"By taking a holistic, top-down approach to helping our nation's veterans we can improve both clinical efficacy and how outcomes are measured," said Thomas Dreschler, Mellivora's managing partner. "Service members are trained for the challenges of war, but not always properly prepared for returning to home life and the rigors that go with it."

Pendleton County Commissioner Gene McConnell said MCP's plans for the base show that "Sugar Grove now has the opportunity to once again bring success to West Virginia through job creation while providing a service owed to those who willingly served America."

Junior Smith, a long-time Sugar Grove employee who has been named MCP's general manager of the site, said he looked forward to the former military base's new role and "once again being an active contributor to the community."

The former Navy base was once Pendleton County's second largest employer, topped only by the county's school system, and resembles a small, self-contained town more than a military installation. It includes more than 100 buildings, including single-family homes on tree-lined streets, a large dormitory-style barracks, administrative buildings, machine shops, a fire department, swimming pool, bowling alley, restaurant and cabins.

MCP officials thanked residents of the area and county officials for supporting their plans for the base and welcoming them into their community.

MCP is a private equity firm focused on the southeastern United States, where it has done business for the past 15 years, according to the release. Its lead investors are Robert Pike and W. Cobb Hazelrig, who completed the purchase of the Navy base.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

Audit recommends end to certificates of need for hospitals http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170207/GZ0115/170209607 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170207/GZ0115/170209607 Tue, 7 Feb 2017 17:19:30 -0500 Phil Kabler By Phil Kabler Before they start offering new services and open new facilities, West Virginia hospitals shouldn't have to go through a state regulatory process that requires them to prove that their patients lack access to those services, a legislative audit released Tuesday states.

The state Health Care Authority regulates the certificate-of-need process for hospitals. Until last year, hospitals also had to go through the authority to increase the rates they charged patients, but state lawmakers did away with that requirement.

Tuesday's audit concluded that the state's certificate-of-need process is ineffective at controlling health care costs and poses an unnecessary regulatory barrier.

It found that between 2011 and 2015, only four of 228 certificate-of-need applications were denied by the Health Care Authority. Also during that time, there were 769 requests to determine if proposed health services had to go through the certificate-of-need process, with the conclusion only 64 of the 769 requests were subject to review.

However, Health Care Authority member Sonia Chambers said the process benefits patients by assuring them that facilities given the OK for particular procedures meet minimum standards for the number of procedures performed.

"The vast majority, if not all, of West Virginia hospitals, especially those in rural areas will tell you certificate of need serves a vital role," Chambers told the legislative Post-Audits Committee Tuesday.

Speaking from experience, Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said, "You don't want to go have open-heart surgery at a place you don't think is competent to do it."

Chambers said that, despite the audit's findings that state health care costs have increased faster than national averages, a 2009 study by actuaries for the Public Employees Insurance Agency and the Children's Health Insurance Program found that the certificate-of-need process saved state health insurers $100 million in costs that year.

"The opinion was, if certificate of need was eliminated, it would cost significantly more to insure in West Virginia," she said.

Chambers spoke on behalf of the Health Care Authority because it doesn't currently have a chairperson, following the recent retirement of James Pitrolo as chairman.

Besides noting that West Virginia has one of the highest growth rates for per-capita spending on health care, and currently ranks 12th highest in personal care costs, the legislative audit concluded the CON process is an unnecessary obstacle for health care providers.

Reach Phil Kabler

at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

WV to hand out 8,000 OD-reversal kits http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170206/GZ0115/170209685 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170206/GZ0115/170209685 Mon, 6 Feb 2017 12:49:44 -0500 Erin Beck By Erin Beck Naloxone, the drug that can counteract overdoses of heroin and other opiates, is being used by some emergency responders and groups in parts of West Virginia. Now, the state Department of Health and Human Resources has received a federal grant to distribute naloxone to police departments, fire departments and other agencies in more places around West Virginia.

DHHR officials announced Monday that the department had received a $1.07 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and that the majority of the grant will go toward statewide distribution of naloxone.

The DHHR has contracted with the West Virginia University Injury Control Research Center, which plans to distribute 8,000 two-dose naloxone kits throughout the state.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, state health officer and commissioner of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, said, "The drug epidemic is a fast-moving target and we need to have an all-hands-on-deck approach."

"This lifesaving drug is something that, when used in a timely manner, can save lives," he said in a phone interview. "Only when someone who overdoses gets to live can they enter treatment ... and ultimately be successful in entering the workforce."

Distribution of about half the naloxone will begin later this week. Gupta said police departments, fire departments and naloxone take-home programs will receive the kits.

"The big picture is this becoming one of the tools in the toolbox," he said.

Regional substance abuse task forces helped the Injury Control Research Center identify organizations with existing naloxone programs, which were then surveyed on their interest in participation, according to Herb Linn, assistant director for outreach at the Injury Control Research Center. Many of those surveyed did not respond to the survey.

As for organizations without pre-existing programs, Linn said the Injury Control Research Center participated in a conference call for local health departments throughout the state and asked if any would be interested.

"There may be naloxone available to them, as well," he said, adding that distribution would depend on the number of active programs requesting naloxone.

"We really need people who haven't responded to the survey yet to fill it out so they can be in our next round of naloxone distribution," he said.

The Injury Control Research Center will evaluate the distribution project by collecting data, including looking at whether people become less likely to die from overdoses, as well as counting the number of new programs, people trained and kits distributed, Linn said.

During the first phase of the project, naloxone will go to organizations in Berkeley, Brooke, Cabell, Hancock, Harrison, Kanawha, Marion, McDowell, Mercer, Monongalia, Ohio and Raleigh counties. Linn noted that more counties will have the opportunity to obtain the drug during the second phase.

"Please remember that we want all organizations who have active programs, or who have interest in starting programs, to contact us," he said.

If your organization has an active overdose education and naloxone distribution program or a non-EMS first responder naloxone program and you have not been contacted about the naloxone distribution program, contact Sheena Sayres by phone at 304-293-1528 or email ssayres@hsc.wvu.edu.

According to the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services, there were 4,286 doses of naloxone administered that were reported by local EMS agencies across West Virginia in 2016. There were 3,351 doses administered by local EMS agencies in 2015. The figure does not include doses administered by other first responders, hospitals or family members.

At least 615 opiate-related overdose deaths were reported in West Virginia in 2016, according to the DHHR.

The Charleston Fire Department is one of the organizations receiving naloxone from the state. Capt. Alisha Samples, the department's EMS supervisor, said paramedics used the drug when she became a paramedic in 1991.

"I probably could count on one hand how many times I used it in 15 years," she said.

Now, she said, the fire department typically uses it about two to three times each day.

"We're saving lives with it every day," she said.

Samples said she hopes to see more treatment centers open, as well. She said some patients need to be revived with naloxone more than once.

But, "I'm not God," she added. "I can't judge."

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

Drug companies ask judge to toss McDowell pain-pill suit http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170204/GZ0118/170209751 GZ0118 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170204/GZ0118/170209751 Sat, 4 Feb 2017 19:35:29 -0500 Eric Eyre By Eric Eyre One of the nation's largest drug distributors says West Virginia's poorest and most drug-ravaged county has no authority to sue the company for problems caused by prescription painkillers.

Last week, Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health asked a federal judge to dismiss a recent lawsuit filed by the McDowell County Commission, arguing the county should be pointing the finger at "pill mill" doctors and pharmacies.

"Without a doctor to prescribe them and a pharmacy to dispense them, the opioids shipped ... would not be in the hands of county citizens," Cardinal Health's lawyers wrote in the motion to dismiss.

Cardinal Health said it couldn't police pharmacies or doctors, and the McDowell commission would be unable to show the company sold a single pill to a pharmacy that wasn't licensed and in good standing with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and West Virginia Board of Pharmacy.

"This lawsuit is misguided," the drug distributor's lawyers wrote.

The McDowell County Commission also named drug wholesalers AmerisourceBergen and McKesson in its lawsuit. AmerisourceBergen filed a motion to dismiss the case last week, making arguments similar to Cardinal Health's. McKesson did not ask the judge to toss the lawsuit.

In Cardinal Health's motion, the company said McDowell County wants to bar shipments of prescription drug orders, but the county has no authority to do so.

"The county is the wrong plaintiff because the real victims ... are the individuals who were recklessly or criminally prescribed opioid drugs by pill mills," lawyers wrote.

McDowell County's lawsuit alleges the drug distributors failed to report suspicious orders for "obscenely large quantities" of prescription drugs. The suit said the companies also had a duty to refuse to ship suspicious orders.

State regulations only require drug firms to report suspect orders, not to stop shipments, Cardinal Health said. McDowell County can't regulate the company's conduct in a way that's inconsistent with state law, the lawyers wrote.

In its lawsuit, McDowell County also seeks to recover costs related to the opioid problem - things like increased law enforcement and emergency ambulance services.

But Cardinal Health, which distributes more prescription drugs in West Virginia than any other company, argues that a legal precedent called the "free services doctrine" bars such claims.

"The police do not present a bill for their time when they cite a negligent driver for a fender-bender, nor does the fire department when it puts out the fire caused by the homeowner's misuse of flammable liquids," Cardinal Health's lawyers said in the motion to dismiss.

The drug company also said West Virginia has a two-year "statute of limitations" on the types of negligence claims made by the McDowell commission. The county's allegations about the drug companies' alleged misconduct dates back to 2012.

Cardinal Health noted that McDowell County filed suit against four local pharmacies in 2013, alleging the drugstores dispensed an excessive number of pain pills. The commission later voted to drop the lawsuit, and the case was dismissed.

"[Drug wholesalers] merely deliver products to pharmacies, who have legal, ethical and professional responsibilities to dispense pursuant only to legitimate medical prescriptions," Cardinal Health's lawyers wrote in last week's motion.

McDowell County is one of more than a dozen counties and cities in West Virginia that have filed lawsuits against drug wholesalers - or announced plans to sue the companies - during the past month. McDowell also named a doctor as a defendant, alleging he over-prescribed pain medications

In early January, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen announced they had agreed to pay a combined $36 million to the state to settle a four-year-old lawsuit that alleged they helped fuel West Virginia's prescription drug problem. In their motions to dismiss, the companies' lawyers argue that the state - as part of the settlement - granted the wholesalers a release from future damage claims.

The drug distributors have said the recent spate of county and city lawsuits are nothing more than "copycat suits" driven by trial lawyers.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

WV health officials meet, discuss harm reduction strategies http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170202/GZ0115/170209874 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170202/GZ0115/170209874 Thu, 2 Feb 2017 18:05:30 -0500 Erin Beck By Erin Beck FLATWOODS - Thursday morning and afternoon, employees of health departments from across West Virginia learned about how several health departments and other agencies in the state have tackled the opioid crisis by acknowledging that people addicted to drugs aren't always equipped to change their behaviors.

Health department officials participated in a day-long meeting at the Days Inn in Flatwoods on a strategy called harm reduction. The model includes accepting that patients aren't always willing or adequately prepared to change health behaviors - in this case, drug use - and that responsible public health interventions require meeting those people where they're at and providing ways to minimize risk, such as: needle exchange programs; providing naloxone, a drug that reverses opiate overdoses, for first responders; and testing for viral infections that can be spread by sharing needles.

They heard how health officials in Cabell, Ohio, Monongalia and Jefferson counties have implemented harm reduction programs. Speakers encouraged attendees to implement programs in their own counties.

Angela Brown, a nurse practitioner at the Clay County Health Department, recorded what Dr. Kevin Yingling said about syringe exchange programs and other forms of harm reduction so she could play the recording for her board of health.

Clay County has no needle exchange, but it isn't immune to the types of viral infections needle exchanges may keep from spreading.

Kanawha County has a needle exchange program, and in Kanawha County in 2015 there were three cases of acute hepatitis C reported, according to a report provided by DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler. That's equal to 1.6 cases per 100,000 people.

In Clay County, there were two cases reported. That's equal to 22.4 per 100,000.

Reports from some other surrounding counties without programs showed: Roane, two cases, 13.9 per 100,000; Boone, four cases, 17.1 per 100,000; Putnam, one case, 1.8 per 100,000.

Jason Favor, too, planned to bring some of the information back to the board of health in Fayette County. Favor is the threat preparedness coordinator for the Fayette County Health Department.

In Fayette County, there was one case, equal to 2.2 per 100,000.

In Kanawha County in 2015, there were 71 cases of acute hepatitis B reported, equal to 37.7 per 100,000.

In Clay County, there were eight cases, equal to 89.8 per 100,000.

Some other surrounding counties showed: Roane, two cases, 13.9 per 100,000; Boone, 15 cases, 64.2 per 100,000; Putnam, 14 cases, 24.6 per 100,000.

In 2016, there were at least 615 overdose deaths involving at least one opioid in West Virginia, according to DHHR data provided by Adler.

County health departments that have operated harm reduction programs include Cabell, Kanawha, Ohio and Jefferson, according to Bill Kearns, president of the West Virginia Association of Local Health Departments.

Monongalia County also has one, at a free clinic. A Raleigh County doctor has also operated one. Adler said state officials are also aware of a program in Parkersburg.

That leaves 48 counties without programs. About 318 opiate-related overdoses occurred in 2016 in those counties, according to the DHHR.

Brown listened intently as Yingling, dean of the Marshall University School of Pharmacy and a member of the Cabell Board of Health, spoke about the challenges of convincing health departments to disregard the idea that needle exchanges encourage addiction, and to think in terms of costs. He said that Cabell County spends $100 million in an average year on the costs of addiction.

"What's the legacy of your health department going to be?" he said.

Brown said that while Clay County doesn't have the heroin problem Cabell County does, she wants to be proactive, and the area does have a pain pill problem. She also noticed that after devastating floods last summer, people are returning to old coping mechanisms.

"That's the happiness that a pill could give them," she said, "when they before could get it by life."

Favor said that Fayette County has applied for a grant for naloxone to give to first responders. He wanted to suggest a needle exchange to the board of health, as well.

"What we have to do now is get the information not just to the public, but the board of health - the people that make decisions for those people," he said.

Dr. Michael Brumage, executive director/health officer of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, called on health department officials to pool resources and form coalitions. He suggested that Thursday could be the first meeting of a statewide harm reduction coalition.

"This is the most-pressing public health problem, and it's not going to go away," he said. "If anything, it's going to get worse before it gets better."

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams urged the attendees to follow Cabell County's lead.

He described receiving a series of cries for help from community members upon taking office, and first thinking that the drug crisis was up to the police.

"In each of your cities, you will hear someone say someone needs to do something, but not that," he said.

He described seeing overdoses in people "as young as 8 or 9 years old, as old as in their 70s."

"This hits me in my soul," he said.

He said at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, he found people who said "I'll go in front of you."

"This does not take courage," he said. "It doesn't take courage when you're backed into a corner and there is no way out other than going straight ahead.

"We can be known as that state that figured out a way to defeat this."

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

Report ranks WV last among states for well-being http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170201/GZ0115/170209929 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170201/GZ0115/170209929 Wed, 1 Feb 2017 17:18:15 -0500 Lori Kersey By Lori Kersey West Virginians are worse off in four indicators of overall well-being than any other state in the country, according to a study released Wednesday.

The Mountain State ranks 50th on the 2016 Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index. The index takes into account what residents of each state report about their well-being in five categories: purpose, social, financial, community and physical health.

The rankings are based on 177,192 telephone interviews conducted Jan. 2 to Dec. 30, 2016, with adults across every state and Washington, D.C. In West Virginia, about 1,100 random adults were polled.

West Virginia's well-being score was 58.9. Hawaii was highest on the list and got a score of 65.2. Kentucky ranked just higher than West Virginia with a score of 60.5.

Dan Witters, research director of the well-being index, said West Virginia's well-being problems go beyond physical health.

West Virginia's rate of obesity (36.7 percent) is "through the roof," Witters said. The state's rate for diabetes (18.6 percent), people who experience daily pain (33.4 percent), smoking (29.4 percent), high cholesterol (30.5 percent), smokeless tobacco (8.5 percent) and depression (26 percent) are all highest in the nation, Witters said.

The state also ranks 41st in the nation for exercise, Witters said.

"There's lot of things you can point to if you zero in on the physical health part," he said. "West Virginians do not take good care of themselves compared to residents of other states."

West Virginians also scored low when it comes to taking pride in community, he said. Only 57 percent of those polled in West Virginia agreed that they live a place they're proud of, he said.

State residents didn't score well for financial well-being, either. Only 36 percent of West Virginians polled agreed that they have money to do everything they want to do, Witters said. Around 20 percent of West Virginians polled said they didn't have money for food at some point in the last month, according to the report.

On the social well-being score, only 71.7 percent of West Virginians said they had someone in their lives that encourages them to be healthy, which is the fifth-lowest percentage in the country.

West Virginia ranked low in the purpose portion of the well-being report. In West Virginia, 61 percent of those polled said they learn or do something interesting every day, which puts it at 49th in the nation for that measure. Along the same lines, only 60 percent of West Virginians polled said were in a vocation where they get to use their strengths, which makes the state 50th "by a wide margin" for that measure, Witters said.

Fifty-eight percent of West Virginians polled reported going to a dentist within the past year, Witters said. Witters said there's a correlation between poor oral health and increased chances of heart attack and stroke as well as other health issues. But oral health also offers a picture of a person's broader health, Witters said. People who see a dentist tend to evaluate their lives and have a greater optimism, he said.

"Taking care of your mouth is a physical surrogate for how you're taking care of your life," he said.

West Virginia's well-being was not all bad, though. The state did well for its low uninsured rate, which at 6.1 percent is the sixth lowest in the nation, Witters said. The low insurance rate is largely attributable to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which expanded Medicaid coverage to those who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line. With 86 percent, West Virginia had the ninth best ranking in the country for the number of adults with a personal physician.

West Virginia had the second lowest drinking rate in the country, too. Sixty-nine percent of adults in West Virginia report they do not drink alcohol at all in a typical week, Witters said.

To improve the state's well-being, there are things the state can put in place. But Witters said, change will start with good leaders in politics and communities, places of worship and workplaces.

Leaders who encourage people to be healthy are the foundations of good health, he said. Leaders should have a clear and consistent definition of well-being, he said. Leaders can use a "bully pulpit" to encourage health, he said.

Workplaces can offer incentives to employees for actions that promote health. For instance, they can give them a certain amount in their health care savings accounts for meeting goals and require any workplace-catered meals be healthy foods.

Reach Lori Kersey at 304-348-1240, lori.kersey@wvgazettemail.com or follow @loriKerseyWV on Twitter.

DHHR halts plans for new computer system, citing 'excessive' cost http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170201/GZ0101/170209947 GZ0101 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170201/GZ0101/170209947 Wed, 1 Feb 2017 15:20:03 -0500 Eric Eyre By Eric Eyre The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has shelved plans to buy a new computer system that would track people's eligibility for DHHR services such as Medicaid, the agency said Tuesday.

DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch called two recent bids for the project "excessive." Optum, the low bidder, planned to charge the state $477 million. Deloitte submitted an $848 million bid.

The agency might solicit new bids for a scaled-down version of the project.

"During these difficult financial times, DHHR understands that business needs to be conducted in fiscally responsible way," Crouch said. "We are considering our options to narrow the scope of the project."

Crouch's announcement came two hours after Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, issued a press release, urging the DHHR secretary and Gov. Jim Justice's administration to put the brakes on the eligibility system purchase. Walters cited a Gazette-Mail report on the bid opening earlier this week.

"I am concerned at this time that the state would be considering such an expense at a time when the administration and the Legislature are looking at addressing a budget shortfall in the range of half a [billion]," said Walters, who serves on the House Finance Committee.

The DHHR solicited bids for the new eligibility system last year. At the time, Karen Bowling was DHHR secretary. Justice appointed Crouch to replace Bowling last month.

The state faces a multimillion-dollar budget deficit. The budget deficit for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins July 1 will be about $500 million, officials with former governor Earl Ray Tomblin's administration said shortly before Tomblin left office.

DHHR officials have said the federal government would pick up 90 percent of the cost of the new computer system, but Walters said the federal match could fall to 75 percent for some parts of the system.

"Even if the federal government would provide the great majority of the funding for the eligibility system, we still would be looking at coming up with state funding in the range of $50 million to $60 million or more," Walters said. "We should not be saddled with that expense without reviewing it before the state enters a long-term commitment."

The DHHR had planned to replace three outdated program eligibility systems with the new one. In addition to Medicaid, the new system would monitor enrollment in welfare and food stamp programs.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Crouch sent a letter to Walters, saying the DHHR notified the governor's office Tuesday about its decision to reject the bids.

Walters said he sent a letter detailing his concerns about the computer project that same day.

Reach Eric Eyre at 304-348-4869, ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

Marshall professor gets $1.3M for health care in coal communities http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170201/GZ0115/170209979 GZ0115 http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20170201/GZ0115/170209979 Wed, 1 Feb 2017 09:11:01 -0500 The Associated Press By The Associated Press HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - A health professor and researcher at Marshall University has received a $1.3 million federal grant to continue health care work in areas affected by coal in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

The university said the recipient is Richard D. Crespo of the Department of Family and Community Health at the medical school. The grant is from the Appalachian Regional Commission and is for work with high-risk diabetes patients.

The university said in a news release the grant will fund the creation of care coordination teams that include community health workers who will work with patients in their homes and communities. The goal is to provide the patients with self-management skills to control their condition.

Crespo says the grant will allow establishing sustainable funding for people who work at the community level.