West Virginia Senator Ryan Weld’s Bills To Focus On Addiction Treatment

WHEELING — Recent efforts by the West Virginia Legislature to curb drug addiction have focused on punishment for offenders, and Sen. Ryan Weld says the next move by lawmakers should be to start looking at improving drug treatment policies in the state.

During the Legislature’s off months, Weld, R-Brooke, is working to craft a bill that would limit the length of time some opioid drugs can be prescribed, and another that would require health insurers to provide coverage for drug addiction treatment.

He is also seeking to increase the number of needle exchange programs in the state, similar to one already in use in Ohio County. And he wants the non-addictive pill Vivitrol to be more available to opioid abusers, who risk becoming addicted to the more-often-used Suboxone and methadone while in treatment.

Lastly, he hopes to bring back legislation in 2018 not passed this year that would allow patients to request from their pharmacists smaller amounts of opioids than what has been prescribed by their doctors.

Weld serves as vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and is an assistant prosecutor in Brooke County.

“We did a lot last year to address the criminal side of substance abuse … but in my mind we didn’t do enough to address the treatment side of it all, as well as to limit the number of opioids available through prescriptive uses,” he said.

Some states have enacted laws limiting the number of days an opioid can be prescribed for acute pain, according to Weld. Ohio has enacted a seven-day limitation on opioid prescriptions, while New Jersey now allows only five-day prescriptions.

“A lot of times we see individuals who steal drugs maybe from their grandparents, parents or their neighbors, and that’s how they gain access to opioids,” he said. “I think if we can cut out the unnecessary number of pills that may be part of a prescription, we have a good chance of cutting down on the number who want to take them to get high.”

Weld’s Senate Bill 48 this year would have allowed a patient with a 30-day prescription for opioids to ask for fewer pills if they thought they only needed them for three or 10 days.

New Jersey also has put in place a mandate requiring insurance companies to cover up to 180 days of treatment for drug addiction, according to Weld. Such measures wouldn’t help those insured under Medicaid and Medicare, but would provide coverage for those with employer-sponsored health insurance, he said.

A major obstacle to drug addiction treatment in West Virginia is that the state doesn’t have enough beds in treatment centers to handle the present need. Weld said mandating coverage by insurers would provide a sure revenue stream that could encourage treatment providers to expand their centers.

And while there, patients may be more apt to receive Vivitrol from doctors. The monthly injection blocks a person’s ability to get high from prescription pain killers or become intoxicated by alcohol, and there has been success with this treatment in West Virginia, according to Weld.

Vivitrol is prescribed in place of Suboxone or methadone, drugs that can create a different high for the patient.

“I think if we can turn toward that — and turn away from Suboxone and methadone — the better off we will be,” he said.

Weld said he initially had reservations about needle exchange programs, but now believes they can be of benefit both to drug abusers and the community. There are only six such programs in West Virginia.

“The obvious upside is you can cut down on HIV and hepatitis from people not sharing needles,” he said. “But also I think it gives health care workers involved with the program the opportunity to speak directly to addicts. You know who these people are when they come in.”

The health care workers can discuss with them options for recovery and means for getting help, Weld said.

The Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, however, has reported a very low percentage of needle exchange program participants who seek help — only about 5 percent in the program’s first year.

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