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Southwest Virginia has the highest rate of accidental deaths due to prescription drug overdoses in Virginia, but health care reform offers hope.
Monday, April 22, 2013
Not long after the turn of the millenium, crime related to prescription drug addiction in the Appalachian coalfields started breaking into news stories well beyond Virginia’s far Southwest.
“Oxycontin abuse spreads from Appalachia to Midwest,” read a Kansas City Star story picked up and published by The Roanoke Times in July 2001. It noted at least 43 fatal overdoses in Western Virginia since 1998 and a spike in crime by addicts that was overwhelming local police.
Last week, the Bristol Herald Courier posted a story, “Drug study shows drug deaths up 40 percent in Southwest Virginia” from 2007 to 2011.
The region has the highest rate of accidental deaths due to prescription drug overdoses in the commonwealth, according to the report issued this spring by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia. And crime related to prescription drug abuse has put a “profound strain” on law enforcement.
After a dozen years, and the federal prosecution that ended in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines against the manufacturer of Oxycontin, the picture of prescription drug abuse in rural Virginia has not changed much.
Addiction remains a corrosive that simultaneously feeds on and adds to the despair of an economically depressed region.
U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy issued a list of recommendations along with the report, which came out of a Southwest Virginia Prescription Drug Abuse Summit in November. While each should be carefully considered, some are so worthy their adoption could hardly be debated — were the proper resources available.
Providing financial support to drug courts and expanding them into other communities in Southwest Virginia, for example, should be a state budget priority.
Improving treatment for addiction is another essential that gets more rhetorical than financial support among state policymakers. But the shortsightedness of politicians who find it easier to punish than to treat drug abuse is not the sole barrier to breaking this cycle.
As the U.S. attorney’s report on the drug summit notes, “addiction is a complex but treatable disease,” and the longer the patient stays in treatment, the greater the likelihood of long-term recovery. Distance and mountain topography make that challenging in Southwest Virginia.
Further, “A common theme expressed from providers regarded frustration over the lack of payment for inpatient substance abuse treatment by many insurance carriers, including Virginia Medicaid.”
Treating substance abuse is one of the health benefits mandated in the Affordable Care Act. That means starting next year, insurance sold on exchanges or “provided by Medicaid to certain newly eligible adults . . . must include coverage,” according to the Office on National Drug Control website — though just what will be covered is yet to be determined.
As is Virginia’s political will to take advantage of the opportunity for its residents.
Health care reform, so feared in the region, could be a game changer in its fight against this addiction, if given the chance.
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