Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with students and community members at Oceana Middle School about West Virginia’s prescription drug abuse epidemic and its impact on the lives of our students and their loved ones. As always, I was struck by the devastating impact this crisis has had on so many in our state. I was especially moved by the stories of two Oceana Middle students. Fourteen year-old Kerry’s parents are separating because of the effect of opioid abuse on his family, and twelve year-old Hali’s stepfather is struggling with an addiction to painkillers that he developed after sustaining an injury in the coal mines. Hali also lost a sister to a driver under the influence. Yet, these two young people did not come to the town hall in search of sympathy; they came to offer hope and support to others struggling through similar challenges and advocate for action to reverse this crisis.
Unfortunately, stories like Hali’s and Kerry’s are not uncommon in our state. It is news to no one in West Virginia that our state is in the throes of the nation’s most devastating prescription drug abuse epidemic, with our southern counties among the areas most deeply affected by this crisis. West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths, with nearly 34 deaths per 100,000 people. That’s more than twice the national average. Over the past five years alone, nearly 2,900 West Virginians have died after overdosing.
This epidemic has not only gripped our state, but our entire nation. Each day, 44 people die as a result of prescription drug abuse overdose, and in 2013, nearly two million Americans over the age of twelve abused or were dependent upon opioids. Despite the fact that our country contains a mere 4.6 percent of the global population, we consume 80 percent of its opioids. And the reason opioids are so pervasive is that our nation’s doctors prescribe so many of them. In 2012, health care providers across America wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers, enough for every American to have a bottle of pills.
As jarring as these numbers are, it is the shattering personal impact that abuse has on individuals and families — like those of Kerry and Hali — throughout the state that cuts the deepest on this issue. Far too often, dedicated parents, hardworking students, loving friends, and our selfless veterans are caught in the cycle of opioid abuse. Good citizens prepared to accomplish great things can have their lives turned upside-down and threatened by an addiction to prescription painkillers. My heart is heavy each time I hear anyone, especially young people, speak of families struggling with a dependence on painkillers and young people recalling friends whose bright futures were thrown off-course after developing an addiction. As I spoke with students at Oceana Middle School, attended a drug court graduation ceremony in Boone County, and joined residents at a roundtable discussion in Madison, I listened to stories that echoed those I’ve heard not only throughout my years as Senator and Governor but also among my own family and friends. The crisis has touched nearly everyone in the Mountain State.
My decision to remain in the Senate rather than to try to return to the Governor’s office was made in large part because I feel this is where I can unquestionably make the greatest headway in combatting prescription drug abuse. I remain committed to this goal, and my recent encounters with residents and community leaders throughout southern West Virginia energized me even more than ever to continue my initiatives in Washington to curb this appalling epidemic. I continue to encourage lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to put aside partisan differences to implement effective legislation that will better regulate the prescribing of opioids and treat current and recovering addicts. If Washington can unite in a fight against the prescription drug abuse epidemic, we can save thousands of lives and improve the well-being of West Virginians and Americans from across the nation.
We have made some strides. The reclassification of hydrocodone-containing drugs such as Lortab and Vicodin, which I fought for diligently, has helped prevent drugs from getting into the wrong hands by ensuring proper limits for prescription refills, tighter controls at pharmacies and more visits to a doctor before receiving these dangerous drugs. After the Drug Enforcement Agency announced in May that it would no longer sponsor National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, I successfully urged Attorney General Loretta Lynch to reverse this decision and another successful Drug Take Back Day was held on September 26. Additionally, I have spoken out various times against the FDA’s recent approval of OxyContin for children as young as 11 years old and called for a Senate investigation into the decision. Earlier this month, I announced nearly $700,000 in federal funding to be dedicated to enhance drug court services and boost the effectiveness of juvenile drug courts across the state. And in September, I announced nearly $150,000 in federal funds to be allocated to the City of Huntington’s Women’s Empowerment and Addiction recovery program.
These successes are just the first steps in the battle to curb the prescription opioid epidemic in West Virginia and across the country. Prescription drug abuse continues to destroy communities throughout our state. The truth is that family lives are ripped apart because of addiction and overdose deaths. Grandparents, great grandparents and neighbors are raising kids whose parents suffer from addiction. These circumstances are too common and simply unacceptable, and local, state, and federal officials must work diligently to successfully curb this complex issue. As President Obama’s visit to Charleston last week indicates, the federal government is aware of the immense drug abuse epidemic facing West Virginia, and I remain committed to turning this awareness into action. For the sake of Kerry and Hali and those in similar situations, our families and the future of our state, we must reverse the prescription drug abuse crisis that has touched our families, our friends and our communities.