February 10, 2016

Sen. Manchin takes West Virginia's drug problem to Senate floor | Clarksburg Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., went to the Senate floor Tuesday to read two letters from West Virginians who had been personally impacted by the opioid epidemic.

“We’re getting these by the hundreds,” Manchin said. “I’m hoping that as we share the West Virginia stories, every other senator is taking a look at their own state. People are losing their parents, their home life, their spouse and their loved ones. It strips you of everything you’ve got.”

One letter, written by a Harrison County resident named Kylie, spoke of her father’s addiction, which developed after he was prescribed painkillers following shoulder surgery in 1994.

“His life literally revolved around his pain medication,” the letter read. “His pain medication money came before our bills. There were a few times we could not have Christmas or Easter because he used all of our money to purchase these drugs.”

By reading letters like Kylie’s, Manchin said he hopes to start a conversation, as well as prompt legislation, to help those who suffer from a crippling opioid addiction.

“It starts with the federal government,” he said. “First of all, they have to have a mindset that we need it.”

During his presentation to the Senate, Manchin said West Virginia has been hit the hardest by the opioid epidemic.

“Drug overdose deaths have soared by more than 700 percent between 1999 and 2013. In my home state, 600 lives were lost last year to opioids,” he said.

But opioid abuse is epidemic not just in West Virginia, but also nationwide. With Tuesday’s primary election in New Hampshire, the state’s own opioid addiction incidence has been near the center-point of political discussion.

“(Hillary Clinton) is the first candidate I heard discuss this, and now everybody is talking about it, which I think is a good thing,” Manchin said.

Manchin’s comments to the Senate had the support of drug prevention expert JoAnne McNemar of the Harrison County Prevention Partnership.
McNemar said a comprehensive approach to drug addiction — prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery — need to be used in order to truly address drug addiction.

“Prevention has helped to delay first use in West Virginia, and we know that West Virginia drug use is decreasing because prevention is working,” she said.

Manchin said that many legislators, himself included, had previously viewed opioid addiction as a criminal problem rather than a medical problem.

“Addiction to these opioids is not a crime, it’s an illness,” he said. “But if we put you in jail, you’re still addicted. Now you have a criminal background and can’t find a job, and we’re not fixing the problem.”

McNemar added that those in need are not “addicts” but in many cases leaders and professionals within their community.

“These are people that were hurt in an accident, in a sports injury or working in the coal mines,” she said.

In terms of addressing opioid use and abuse, Manchin said the biggest obstacles are the Federal Drug Administration, who oversees the pharmaceutical industry, and the prescribing physicians.

“Challenge pharmaceutical companies to develop medications other than being an addictive opioid,” he said. “The doctors aren’t trained properly. They get the training they need, but they don’t get trained on these powerful, addictive drugs.”

McNemar added: “We also need to educate our physicians to better serve individuals with use disorders.”

Once federal regulation is achieved, Manchin said dispensing guidelines will be the next step.

“We’ve got to change how we dispense, and we need guidelines of how much is dispensed. All of this has to change,” he said.

Manchin also said more immediate need should be placed on the availability of treatment facilities.

“People that are looking for help to get off their addiction have nowhere to go,” he said. “It’s so expensive. We have people that want help and can’t even find a place to go.”

McNemar agreed that more money needs to be dedicated to treatment, as well as intervention programs.

“If we’re working not only with treatment but also with intervention, the two will meet in the middle somewhere,” she said.

When asked about President Barack Obama’s plan to designate $1.1 billion in new funding to address the prescription opioid abuse and heroin use epidemic, Manchin said it’s only a temporary solution.

“The only thing I would tell the president is to pull his recommendation for Dr. (Robert) Califf to lead the FDA,” Manchin said. “This is a honorable man with a great resume, but he has extensive ties to the pharmaceutical industry.”

Manchin believes the FDA needs a leader who will stand up to the drug companies.

“I do not believe he is the right person to properly address the prescription drug abuse crisis,” he said. “Simply put, he is not the champion we need to change the culture at the agency.”

Manchin said he’s determined to get the ball rolling in helping those with opioid addictions.

“I’m going to continue reading these letters every week,” he said. “This is your neighbor or your family members. This is somebody personal to you, and this is going to affect everyone that we’re talking to.”

However, efforts will be needed not only on a national level, but also state and local levels.

“It’s going to take everybody working together,” McNemar said. “It doesn’t stop at a county line or at the state line, we’re all in this together.”

By:  Brittany Murray