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West Virginia lawmakers learn about Parkersburg residential addiction recovery moratorium

Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce explains to lawmakers Sunday why the city passed a moratorium on new residential substance abuse treatment facilities. (Photo courtesy Perry Bennett, WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — Lawmakers in West Virginia are considering additional restrictions on residential addiction recovery homes and sober living houses during the next legislative session after Parkersburg’s moratorium in July.

Members of the Joint Committee on Health met Sunday on the first day of three-day legislative interim meetings at the State Capitol Building in Charleston.

Committee members heard a testimony Sunday afternoon from Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce about the city’s moratorium on residential recovery facilities. The Parkersburg City Council voted 8-1 in July to prevent additional facilities from setting up within city limits.

According to Joyce, Parkersburg has 206 beds which were located within city limits — accounting for 19 percent of all licensed substance abuse treatment beds in the state. Wood County alone has 281, which account for 25 percent of licenses treatment beds in the state.

Joyce said more than $6.6 million has been spent since 2017 for infrastructure, rehabilitation, and physical space for three residential treatment facilities.

“That’s a lot of money that came in really fast,” Joyce said. “There’s this large influx of money nationwide…and yet, the standards for those treatment facilities are left largely unchecked.”

Joyce said since 2017, overdose deaths in the city increased 174 percent, failure to appear warrants increased 422 percent, shoplifting increased 52 percent, trespassing charges increased 36 percent, and vacant structure fires increased 400 percent since the number of treatment beds increased.

Joyce said that is due to a lack of facility procedures; when it comes time to leave treatment or if someone is kicked out, they often become part of the city’s homeless population.

“Whether they’re from out-of-state or out-of town, there is no mechanism for when those folks either voluntarily complete their treatment program or get kicked out because they don’t comply,” Joyce said. “They just turn them loose on the streets of Parkersburg.”

House Bill 2459, passed in 2017, exempted the construction and development of drug and alcohol treatment facilities from certificate of need laws. These facilities are also exempt from municipal zoning laws due to substance abuse being classified as a disability. Joyce told the committee that he would like to see residential treatment facilities be put back under the certificate of need rules.

“There has to be some kind of needs-based assessment…with community involvement as to how many more of these facilities, particularly on the licensed treatment side, are we going to locate here,” Joyce said. “I think the long-term piece is we need to make sure those providers who are doing the best work with the best outcomes can sustain long-term.”

Substance abuse treatment facilities in West Virginia are regulated though the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Health Facility Licensure & Certification. House Health Committee Minority Chairman Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, asked Joyce about the concerns he raised regarding the increase in substance abuse treatment beds.

“I think we owe to not just the communities or the city you represent, but we really owe it to the clients who have a reasonable expectation to have facilities that are up to standards so that they have the best chance of recovery,” Pushkin said.

Committee members also heard from Al Johnson, chief assistant state attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida. Johnson was leader of a task force that dealt with the growth of unregulated sober houses — homes where a group of individuals live in alcohol and drug-free environments after leaving substance abuse treatment, learning to stay sober and transition back into society.

In 2017, Florida’s legislature passed a law putting additional regulations on sober homes, requiring background checks for owners and staff of residential addiction recovery organization, making it a crime to use third parties to find patients for their homes (patient brokering), and criminalizes kickbacks.

Johnson told the committee that his task force found that some sober homes took payments for referrals to treatment centers, bilking insurance companies and state and federal programs for the costs of drug testing and other services.

West Virginia passed legislation in 2019 creating a voluntary certification process for recovery residences through organizations, such as the National Alliance for Recovery Residences. Facilities are required to be certified by a third party before being eligible for state funding. The law also prohibits any facility for advertising itself as a certified recovery residence without third party certification.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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