West Virginia recognizes the disastrous impact of substance abuse. Television and newspaper reports inform of lives destroyed, communities devastated and crimes committed. Our legislature and governor are attempting to combat substance abuse problems with the recent allocation of $7.5 million for substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery services. The challenge that faces West Virginia is how to best allocate these funds to maximize treatment effectiveness. As providers of substance abuse services, three areas we commonly encounter significantly limiting the effectiveness of prevention and treatment could be described as availability, affordability and acceptance.
The availability of substance abuse preventative and treatment services remains severely limited in West Virginia. Far from being an "urban problem" substance abuse hurts our mountain valleys and our coal fields. Our rural and geographically remote citizenry face long and cost-prohibitive commutes to access treatment that often involves lengthy "wait lists" before treatment can even begin. And treatment that is delayed generally leads to the further spiraling of use and increasing likelihood of criminal behavior to support the substance dependence. The availability of skilled, credentialed and professional providers within available preventative and treatment programs is a dire need.
Related to availability is affordability: 152,000 West Virginians have substance abuse problems, less than a third of these individuals have insurance to obtain treatment. With the unfolding of the Affordable Healthcare Act, we must work toward increased benefits for citizens, including coverage of preventative as well as treatment services. Parity for reimbursement of substance abuse treatment comparable to reimbursement for treatment of more conventional illnesses such as diabetes will dramatically improve affordability.
Perhaps the most significant obstacle faced is stigma, severely undermining acceptance of substance abuse as a medical disorder. Despite decades of research demonstrating biological and chemical changes affecting substance users, and leading toward the medical reality of addiction, society still believes substance abuse is a weakness, a character flaw, or a simple matter of personal choice. To counter these attitudes we must invest in aggressive educational programs to help our citizens gain a better, more informed awareness of the nature of substance abuse and addiction. With awareness we will gain acceptance.
We urge you to support West Virginia's ambitious substance abuse efforts, and in so doing support the well-being of our state's future. Prevention works! Treatment is effective! Recovery happens!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Karen Schimmel is director of Out Patient Substance Abuse Services at Westbrook Health Services Inc.