This year’s regular session of the West Virginia Legislature began last week, kicked off with a prom known as the State of the State speech, where everyone who thinks he or she is important (or should be) is there to hear the governor outline his proposals for this session.
The people most in need of the Legislature’s attention weren’t there because they’re not political insiders, or they don’t necessarily aspire to be insiders. It’s refreshing, however, that they are high on the priority list of some legislators.
At Jan. 3’s annual Legislative Lookahead, legislators discussed several policies that could improve the lives of West Virginians. Some topics had to do with business taxes or the state budget. Among them was the foster care system, whose problems have become more visible in recent years thanks to the epidemic of illegal drug use.
“Our economic survival is at stake,” said Delegate Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, a physician and chairman of the House Committee on the Treatment and Prevention of Substance Abuse. “If a potential employer is doing a Google search of where to locate, when they type in West Virginia what do they see? Our opioid epidemic.”
But it’s more than opioids. Usually when authorities crack down on one illegal drug or the illegal use of a legal drug, users find another one. We’ve gone from powder cocaine to crack to meth to prescription painkillers to heroin and now back to meth.
As noted by The Herald-Dispatch reporter Taylor Stuck, Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said demands on the foster care system have exploded in recent years mainly due to the opioid epidemic. Crouch said 51% of child removals in the state are related to substance use disorder.
Among the bills Rohrbach will put before his committee this session is one that will require any funds acquired by the attorney general in statewide opioid manufacturer and distributor lawsuits be given to the Legislature to allocate toward substance use disorder treatment, recovery and prevention.
Other lawmakers are thinking of health funding, as well. Earlier in the day, on a panel on the state’s budget, Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said he would like to utilize the Medicaid surplus toward the state’s health concerns, which could possibly include substance use disorder.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician and an announced Democratic Party candidate for governor, said he wants to see more financial support of foster and kinship caregivers.
West Virginia also needs to invest in more mental health services, which can help the foster care crisis by enabling more parents to be healthy enough to parent, Stollings said.
“These people with these diseases, particularly bipolar disorder, they aren’t going to be good parents unless their disease state is in treatment,” he said. “We’ve been pretty stingy with mental health services. And when I say stingy, it’s not for lack of effort.”
As for more specific legislation, Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, said he supports a bill being worked on by the House that would speed up the application time for new foster parents.
Tradition dictates that the governor end his speech with “and God bless the great state of West Virginia.” If the great state of West Virginia expects the blessing of God or whatever higher being its residents recognize, it had better pay attention to the needs of the weakest and most vulnerable of its people.
In this case, that means the children who are the innocent victims of an epidemic of drug abuse and others in the foster care system. Anything less is an insult to those nine words that end the governor’s speech.