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As a leader in the fight to combat the opioid epidemic, it might be surprising to hear me say that we don’t have a drug problem in West Virginia. What we have is an addiction problem.

We are struggling with addiction to tobacco, alcohol, gambling and, yes, opioids and methamphetamine.

We need to look at this crisis not as a drug problem but as a disease that needs to be treated — and when we do, it becomes clear that way too many people who seek treatment face the barrier of not being able to pay their bills if they take time away from work to get the care they need.

One in three Americans doesn’t have a single day of paid leave to care for themselves or their loved ones, and those numbers go up when it comes to low-wage workers, of whom 93% don’t have any paid leave at all. More than 100 million hardworking Americans have to make the impossible choice between a paycheck and critical medical interventions, including treatment for substance use disorders.

This could change in the next month. Congress is considering a national proposal for paid leave, as part of the Build Back Better package. In addition to providing paid parental leave and family caregiving (caring for an aging parent or helping a loved one through surgery or cancer), it also would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for those who seek treatment for addiction.

This would be a game-changer for West Virginia families, too many of which are currently facing the challenges of substance use disorders. West Virginia has the highest rate of opioid deaths in the country.

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What’s more, this new program would come at no cost to employers. The current paid leave proposal would be a direct worker benefit funded by the government, so it also would help the many small businesses in West Virginia, where employers want to do right by their employees but can’t afford this critical benefit.

Addiction costs American society more than $740 billion annually in lost workplace productivity, health care expenses and public safety. A national paid leave program is an investment that will pay dividends, benefiting patients, families, small-business owners and our economy.

While nearly 20 million Americans suffer from addiction, only 10% of them seek treatment. We must remove the roadblocks to recovery, and paid leave is a critical step. Lawmakers who have called for action to address the opioid and addiction crisis should step up to support national paid leave, making it easier for people to access treatment.

As Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recently said, “Last year alone, we lost 1,373 West Virginians to drug-related overdoses. It’s our responsibility to provide our family, friends and neighbors with the support and recovery services they need and deserve.”

I couldn’t agree more. Let’s start by passing national paid leave, so West Virginians who are ready to seek care can begin their recovery journeys now.

Greg Puckett is a member of the Mercer County Commission and also is executive director of Community Connections, a nonprofit that combats the opioid epidemic and lead community revitalization/stabilization efforts.

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