Op-ed: Fighting the opioid crisis means supporting West Virginia hospitals
As your governor, I am blessed to spend time with West Virginians of all walks of life. But nothing has affected me more than listening to those who have been touched by the opioid epidemic.
It is an outrage that even as overdoses and other warning signs soared, drug companies continued to recklessly flood our communities with opioids – literally hundreds upon hundreds of pills per resident in some counties – with devastating effects. Now, the hurt being felt by families and whole communities is enormous, and seeing it firsthand motivates me to take action each and every day.
Perhaps the most agonizing example of this are the nearly 1,000 babies born in our state each year, who come into this world suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). NAS is when, after having absorbed drugs for months in utero, a child is born already suffering from opioid withdrawal. As Dr. Stefan Maxwell of Charleston, who cares for babies suffering from this syndrome, has explained, NAS makes every sensation – even being held, touched, kissed or feeling a light breeze – excruciatingly painful for the child. Some newborns with NAS must be hospitalized for months, and some even mark their first birthdays in intensive care.
Underscoring just how widespread NAS is in parts of our state, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reported that in 2017, nearly 11 percent of babies in Lincoln County were born with the condition, and in Marshall County, the rate of NAS was over 10 percent. You read that correctly: more than one out of every 10 babies born in these counties that year suffered from NAS.
Not only is being born with NAS an unspeakably sad and painful start to life for any child, it also demonstrates that where opioid addiction and NAS are prevalent, so too are the massive uncompensated costs threatening the hospitals West Virginians depend on. Treatment for NAS can cost as much as $80,000 per baby, totaling up to $80 million per year. Our hospitals are not reimbursed for the full cost of providing this and other needed care related to opioid abuse, and today many facilities, especially in rural areas, are being pushed to the brink of closure.
When hospitals close their doors, the ripple effects on the health and economic wellbeing of our communities are serious. That’s why I have directed my administration to dig deep and do everything in its power to help stop the closure of Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling, which just announced plans to shut its doors. Not only is it crucial that West Virginians have access to the medical care they need, about 1,200 jobs are on the line in this hospital alone. It is critical to do what we can to save both our hospitals and these thousands of West Virginia jobs.
And while we continue to fight for West Virginia’s hospitals, we must also continue to combat the underlying crisis. Last month, I joined First Lady Melania Trump in Huntington for a roundtable discussion on the opioid crisis. I appreciate the President and the First Lady’s deep commitment to addressing this emergency in West Virginia and throughout our country. Today, 130 Americans die from an opioid overdose every 24 hours. It is clear that President Trump understands the urgency of this problem, and knows it demands action from the highest levels of our government, on down to our local communities.