As drug overdose deaths soar in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice pledged Wednesday night to support West Virginia University’s research on opioid addiction, but he offered no comprehensive plan for addressing the health crisis.
In his State of the State address, Justice praised WVU’s Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, saying he had talked to a researcher who showed him a vial of microchips that can be implanted in addicts. Justice said the institute is doing “the most landmark stuff that you can possibly imagine.”
“He said it may well be they can cure the opioid addiction,” Justice said. “They can take away the craving. One of those chips can last a year. It is unbelievable what’s happening right there in our home state. I’m going to support them in every way that I possibly can to strive to combat this terrible drug epidemic.”
In 2016, 881 people fatally overdosed on drugs in West Virginia. That was the highest drug overdose death rate of any state.
“We have to stop ... this terrible drug epidemic,” Justice said. “If we don’t, it will cannibalize us. We know we have to build treatment facilities. We have to have additional social workers, and additional law enforcement.”
Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, said Justice “dropped the ball” Wednesday night by not outlining a detailed plan to help fight the opioid crisis.
“There was no legislation referred to that is being considered,” Marcum said. “I don’t think he said much of anything, truthfully. There was a lot of fluff. No substance, no plan.”
Earlier Wednesday, lawmakers introduced legislation (Senate Bill 2) that would curb the number of painkillers doctors may prescribe. The bill would limit initial prescriptions for opioids to a seven-day supply for short-term pain. The West Virginia State Medical Association, which represents doctors, backs the seven-day limit.
Heroin- and fentanyl-related overdose deaths were most common, but recent data has shown that many of those who overdosed had a prescription for an opioid painkiller within the previous year.
The proposed pain-pill prescription limit would not apply to cancer and hospice patients.
If the bill passes, West Virginia would join about two-dozen other states that have set limits on opioid prescriptions for acute pain, such as that caused by a tooth extraction or ankle sprain.
Last year, Kentucky legislators passed a law that restricts prescription painkillers to a three-day supply. Pennsylvania has a five-day limit. Other states have directed medical licensing boards to develop tighter rules for opioid prescribing.
The restrictions aim to stop creating new addictions and keep extra pills from entering the illegal drug market.
The bill would require doctors to counsel new patients who pick up a second prescription for opioids about the risks of taking painkillers. After the third prescription, doctors must refer those new patients to licensed pain clinics.
Existing chronic-pain patients who have an ongoing doctor-patient relationship would not be subject to the prescription limitations.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, has raised concern about the bill, saying it might leave patients without pain medications. Stollings, a physician, has noted that the number of pain pills prescribed in West Virginia already has dropped significantly in recent years because of new state and federal laws.