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West Virginia lawmakers advance measures to address opioids

March 8, 2018

West Virginia lawmakers have advanced measures to curb the state’s drug crisis while rejecting two amendments Wednesday aimed at punishing drug companies that flooded the state with painkillers.

The House agreed to hold a final floor vote Thursday on Senate-passed legislation that would limit new painkiller prescriptions for patients to supplies for three, four or seven days, depending on who writes them. It would also establish protocols for treating chronic pain and coordinate reporting between the state’s pharmacy board and physician licensing boards to flag excessive prescriptions.

Delegates voted 59-36 against requiring pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesalers report every opioid they distributed in West Virginia from 2007 to 2017 with disproportionate suppliers considered grossly negligent and subject to a civil penalty up to $100 million.

“We just let them dump pills in here and did nothing,” said Del. Sean Hornbuckle, a Huntington Democrat. The amendment he sponsored said the decade of excess painkillers “cost the state thousands of lives through death and addiction, and billions of dollars in health, criminal justice and societal costs.”

West Virginia in 2016 had a state record of 887 fatal overdoses — a rate of 52 per 100,000 residents — the highest rate in the nation. Preliminary data for last year show 812.

“This government caters to big pharma,” said Del. Shawn Fluharty, a Wheeling Democrat. “It does nothing to hold them accountable.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott, a Bluefield Republican, called it “a Disneyland amendment” characterized by wishful thinking. He questioned whether the sponsors talked to the state attorney general and whether it would violate his court settlements with opioid distributors.

Delegates also rejected imposing a tax of 10 cents per pill on manufacturers and distributors of opioids by 62-37. Proceeds would be divided between the state’s drug control office and the state’s health insurance program for public workers.

“There’s a drug epidemic in this state,” said Del. Andrew Byrd, a Charleston Democrat. His amendment would prohibit the companies from passing on the cost to consumers. Data show 250 million opioids were distributed in West Virginia last year, he said.

Several Republican lawmakers said the cost would ultimately be passed on the consumers anyway, including chronically ill and injured people who need the painkillers. The also noted ongoing municipal lawsuits against the drug companies now in federal court.

“All the pill mills aren’t closed yet, but we’ve closed a lot of them,” said Del. Matthew Rohrbach. The Huntington Republican and physician said the opioid distribution numbers have come down. He said West Virginia’s Medicaid program reported 53 million opioid pills given to patients last year, saying the tax would add $5.3 million to the program cost.

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