Local solutions to address West Virginia’s opioid abuse epidemic met federal resources to support them in the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse Tuesday morning.
Sixteen local and federal law enforcement, addiction recovery, and judicial leaders converged at the table with U.S. Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski, who also announced a group of indictments against doctors in West Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee and Alabama during a news conference after the discussion.
Members of the media were allowed to hear opening and closing remarks Tuesday, but they were not permitted to be present during the bulk of the conversation among those present in the courthouse.
“West Virginians need no reminder of the impact that the opioid crisis has played in the state,” Benczkowski said during opening remarks. “I think we can and must do better from Washington in working with our partners in this region, in particular West Virginia.”
The overdose rate in West Virginia in 2017 was three times the national average, Benczkowski said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported West Virginia had the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses in 2017, with 57.8 deaths per 100,000 people.
Among the members of the panel was Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey, who presides over adult drug court in Kanawha Circuit Court and the military service members treatment court program.
Bailey said the collaborative effort between local and federal departments is what is needed to move West Virginia out of the substance abuse epidemic.
“We have some examples of programs that have taken on nationwide significance such as Handle With Care and Lily’s Place,” Bailey said. “To have that kind of credibility on how we, as West Virginians, have been working hard, we can show the nation some model programs that might help others.”
Cabell Prosecuting Attorney Corky Hammers said any cooperation in tearing down the epidemic “from the top down” was beneficial to local prosecutors.
“Local prosecutors, we do the best we can to address it on a local level,” he said. “The federal government is prosecuting on a larger scale, the doctors and the companies that supply the drugs, and that ultimately filters down to our local people.”
In addition to Benczkowski, Bailey and Hammers, the following people attended the discussion Tuesday:
- U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart of the Southern District of West Virginia
- U.S. Attorney Bill Powell of the Northern District of West Virginia
- Chief Hank Dial, Huntington Police Department
- Executive Director Rebecca Crowder, Lily’s Place
- Director of Operations Beth Welsh, Marshall Health, Division of Addiction Sciences
- State Superintendent of Schools Steven L. Paine
- Executive Director Bob Hansen, WV Department of Health and Human Resources-Office of Drug Control Policy
- Stacie Archer, Recovery Point Board of Directors
- Drug Enforcement Administration Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jack Sparks
- FBI Supervisory Senior Resident Agent Jeff McCormick
- Health and Human Services-Office of the Inspector General Special Agent in Charge Maureen Dixon
- Veterans Affairs-OIG Resident Agent in Charge Gerald S. Bailey
- West Virginia State Police Capt. Jason Davis
After the discussion ended, Benczkowski and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Mike Stuart announced that a group of 13 people, 11 of them physicians, had been indicted on charges related to operating pill mill clinics that led to the distribution of more than 17 million pills.
The indictments were the latest results of the work of the Appalachian Region Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which is a partnership between the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, the FBI, DEA and the U.S. Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General and local law enforcement agencies, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
Among those arrested were four West Virginia physicians and the owner of a home care support program.
Dr. Thomas Romano, of Wheeling, is charged with 20 counts of diversion of controlled substances. He owns and operates a solo cash-only medical practice in Martin’s Ferry, Belmont County, Ohio, according to the news release.
Dr. Michael Shramowiat, 66, of Vienna; Dr. Ricky Houdersheldt, 67, of Ona; and Dr. Sriramloo Kesari, 77, of Charleston, each were charged with unlawfully distributing controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose, according to the news release.