Justice unveils substance abuse council

ANNOUNCEMENT — Gov. Jim Justice announced the creation of the new Council for Substance Abuse and Treatment at PROACT in Huntington. -- Steven Allen Adams

HUNTINGTON — Huntington, a city that saw a record number of overdoses from drug abuse in 2017, has seen a substantial decrease in overdoses this year.

Now, the experts who have helped provide advice that led to those overdose decreases will be helping guide policy statewide.

During a press conference Monday at the Provider Response Organization for Addiction Care and Treatment (PROACT) in Huntington, Gov. Jim Justice announced the creation of the Council on Substance Abuse and Treatment. The council will work on ways to take what’s working in Huntington and replicate those successes across the state.

“I don’t know if this next step will fix it, but if it won’t fix it, then we need to do the next, then the next and the next,” Justice said. “I’m going to fix the damn problem, that’s all there is to it … this problem is too serious to dink around with.”

Brian Gallagher, the chief governmental affairs officer for Marshall Health, will chair the new council. He is a former chief of governmental affairs, a clinical assistant professor, and director of pharmacy services at Marshall University. He also served as interim dean for Marshall’s School of Pharmacy.

“National leaders recognize that Cabell County is a trailblazer for developing new and innovative programs and approaches and are converging on Huntington to replicate our best practices,” Gallagher said. “We are truly committed to helping our own state. The problem of addiction is multi-faceted, and the best solutions will be derived from this council of experts.”

Justice also announced a permanent director for the Office of Drug Control Policy. The governor appointed Bob Hansen, the director of addiction services at Marshall’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine and Marshall Health. Hansen is the former chief operating officer of Prestera Center, which specializes in behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, and a former executive director for Recovery Point, a substance abuse recovery program.

“I’m grateful to be part of the Huntington plan and the Huntington solution,” Hansen said. “It is my hope and desire to work cooperatively at the state level with DHHR and Secretary (Bill) Crouch and other departments to really form a concerted effort to address the opiate problem … Governor, I’m ready to get going.”

According to the Cabell County EMS, Huntington has seen a 38 percent decrease in non-fatal overdose numbers over the last 10 months compared to 2017.

According to the Trust for America’s Health, West Virginia led the nation for overdose deaths in 2017 at 57.8 deaths for every 100,000 people — an 11 percent increase since 2016. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attribute a three-year drop in life expectancy in the U.S. to drug overdose deaths.

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert, who introduced both Gallagher and Hansen, said Huntington can serve as an example to the rest of the state for how to combat drug abuse.

“We agree with you, we want to fix it as well,” Gilbert said. “I think this step today is going to be a great step in fixing that. In this last year, we’ve made tremendous progress on this epidemic, and we continue to make progress. It’s our commitment that we’re going to fix it with your help.”

ODCP, created when the Legislature passed House Bill 2620 on April 8, 2017, is charged with developing a state drug control policy and strategic planning and advising the governor and the Legislature. Hansen will serve as chief of staff to the new council. A full listing of council members has not been released.

The drug control policy director’s chair has been empty for eight months. Its first director, former Huntington ODCP director Jim Johnson, only served five months before stepping down Jan. 22. Its second director, Dr. Michael Brumage, served less than two months — Feb. 5 to March 23 — before stepping down. The office has also gone through two interim directors.

Another mission of ODCP is coordination of funding and data sharing, as well as providing information on drug and alcohol abuse. The office was mandated to submit its strategic plan by July 1 to reduce drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse by 10 percent. That report is overdue, but Crouch said it’s in the final draft stage.

“I was prepared to send that to the Legislature for December interims, but we’ve held off for this council to review that plan and give us feedback on that plan,” Crouch said. “This council is made up of individuals whose input is going to be invaluable.”

State Sen. Michael Woelfel, D-Cabell, has been a vocal critic of the governor’s handling of the Office of Drug Control Policy. Speaking after the press conference, Woelfel said he is was very pleased with the announcement from the governor and has complete faith in the appointments.

“I’ve known Bob Hansen for 30 years,” Woelfel said. “You couldn’t find a more qualified leader than he is. He knows we can’t hug our way out of this and we cannot arrest our way out of this. Slogans aren’t going to work. I’m excited by the governor’s appointments. We nudged (Justice) along a little bit, but it was worth the wait.”