Warner, drug coalition discuss recovery

Virginia senator Mark Warner, left, and Mark Merrill, president and CEO of Valley Health System, listen Monday to officials with the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition speak during a roundtable discussion on opiate addiction. Rachel Mahoney/Daily

WINCHESTER – Winchester Medical Center hosted Sen. Mark Warner on Monday morning for a roundtable discussion on opioid addiction with representatives from the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition.

Lauren Cummings, executive director of the coalition, gave Warner an introduction to the scope of opiate overdoses in the area and the coalition’s mission.

Cummings presented the coalition’s specific goals and challenges, which included finding and sustaining funding for detox alternatives, Recovery Community Organizations and Drug Treatment Court. The Drug Treatment Court will begin hearing its first cases in August.

She said the coalition has submitted an application to the Office of National Drug Control Policy for a third time, seeking area inclusion with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area around Washington and Baltimore.

“As far as the HIDTA designation goes, in addition to providing funding to law enforcement locally, it would also really help us to fund our prevention efforts, and I think that’s really key,” she said.

Warner had voted for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, which passed 92-2 in the Senate last week. Cummings said that the coalition is “excited” to see the bill’s call for expanded access to the rescue drug naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan. She said trained deputies from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office have saved six adults and an unborn child since February by using Narcan.

In discussion, those at the roundtable informed Warner that despite the low cost of manufacturing the drug, each EpiPen-like injector costs around $4,200. Warner responded to say that the price was “absurd.”

He likened the heroin crisis to methamphetamine issues he saw as governor, mentioning the prescription monitoring program for Sudafed, a common precursor for meth.

“We went through a meth scourge… we went earlier through a crack epidemic,” he said. “It seems to me that this is a much more pervasive, more up and down the socioeconomic ladder than previous drug waves.”

Winchester Police Chief Kevin Sanzenbacher said that crime reports reflect that pervasiveness, attributing drugs to at least 50 percent of incidents in the Winchester area.

“It’s rare that we have a criminal incident that is not related to drugs in some fashion or another,” he said.

The coalition also emphasized recognition of addiction as a public health crisis and changing the stigma attached to addiction. Nicolas Restrepo, vice president of medical affairs at Winchester Medical Center, said that recognition hadn’t occurred when facing those methamphetamine and cocaine crises in the past.

“I think a very important point is that in none of those instances did we as a country address this as a disease,” he said, adding that another drug could cause the next epidemic.

Warner said the coalition made that notion clear.

“I’ve sat through these meetings before around crack and meth, and there were people that said it’s a public health crisis, but not with the same unanimity of opinion,” he said.

While the recent Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act addresses some of the same tools and strategies for combating opiate addiction, Warner said after the discussion that funding is the key component.

“There’s a lot of technical points of the bill that move forward,” he said. “It’s great it passed overwhelmingly, but if you don’t put funding next to it, is it really going to be able to give the assistance – that I heard was here – that was needed?”

After the discussion, Cummings called the bill “a step in the right direction.”

“We are pleased with the fact that this issue has taken a national stage, but our concern is that there is no funding to back the legislation,” she said. “We hope that with future legislation, that there is funding to support it.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com