CHARLESTON, WV— Senator Mike Woelfel (D-Cabell) expressed grave concern the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources is not prioritizing the work of the Office of Drug Control Policy. “Most West Virginians agree we are in a crisis right now with respect to drugs and addiction,” Woelfel said. “Recently in Huntington, a person under the influence of drugs crashed into a playground and I committed to collaborate with interested parties to create legislation so that the punishment for that type of conduct fits the crime. It is my intention to introduce legislation on the first day of session in January to elevate this form of wanton endangerment to a felony status”.
“However, as I began the process of working on the legislation, I learned that the Office of Drug Control Policy is failing in its mission,” Woelfel continued. In 2017, the Legislature created the Office of Drug Control Policy and charged it with creating a state drug control policy addressing all programs related to the prevention, treatment and reduction of substance abuse use disorder. State code also requires the Office of Drug Control Policy to develop a strategic plan to reduce the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse and smoking by at least 10% and to develop a plan to expand the number of treatment beds throughout the state in high priority areas. Both of these plans were due July 1, 2018, as stated in W.Va. Code §16-5T-2(c) and (e).
“It is disheartening, to say the least, that the Office of Drug Control Policy has failed to meet the deadlines set by the Legislature to create strategic plans to address the drug crisis in West Virginia, while at the same time news reports last week noted there were more than 1,000 fatal drug overdoses in West Virginia last year,” said Woelfel. “These plans are a critical part of the Office of Drug Control Policy’s mission and its failure to complete them raises questions.
In addition to the statutorily required plans, chapter 16, article 5T of the state code requires the Office of Drug Control Policy to undertake a number of responsibilities, including collecting data, making policy recommendations, coordinating programs, applying for grant opportunities, and helping to improve communication between health care providers about the risks and benefits of opioid therapy.
“Since its inception, the Office of Drug Control Policy has had two directors and at least two interim directors; and despite the law requiring the Office to operate under the supervision of the State Health Officer, it has apparently been co-opted by the Secretary’s Office,” Woelfel noted. “Quite simply, the Legislature charged DHHR with addressing the drug crisis in West Virginia and it appears to be negligent in its responsibilities.”
The law creating the Office of Drug Control Policy took effect on July 7, 2017. According to press releases from DHHR, Secretary Bill Crouch appointed Jim Johnson as director effective September 2, 2017; Mr. Johnson retired effective January 22, 2018, and Susie Mullens assumed the role of interim director; Governor Justice appointed Michael Brumage as director effective February 5, 2018; Mr. Brumage stepped down on March 23, 2018, and Susie Mullens again assumed the role of interim director. Although Ms. Mullens is still listed as interim director on the Office of Drug Control Policy’s website, calls to the phone number listed are directed to the Office of the DHHR Secretary and they noted that Ms. Mullens no longer works as the Interim Director. A call to the Bureau for Public Health attempting to reach the Office of Drug Control Policy was also directed instead to the Office of the DHHR Secretary. Ultimately, Nancy Sullivan identified herself as interim director of the Office of Drug Control Policy.
“When legislative staff asked the interim director for the strategic plan that the Office of Drug Control Policy was charged with creating by July 1, 2018, the new interim director stated that the plan was in process, but not complete,” Woelfel said. In an email message signature, Nancy Sullivan’s title is listed as “Acting Commissioner, Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, and Assistant to the Cabinet Secretary” at DHHR. In the same email, rather than providing information about the statutorily required plans, Ms. Sullivan pointed to the Opioid Response Plan, which was completed January 30, 2018, by the State Health Officer, which fails to meet the legislative mandate.