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Drug Overdose Deaths Plague West Virginia, Deplete State Funding For Indigent Burials

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Fatal drug overdoses in West Virginia have kept rising, far outpacing any other U.S. state.

As a result, a state program that provides burial assistance to indigent families is nearly out of funds four months before the fiscal year ends, the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources revealed. The growing drug overdose epidemic is partly blamed for the looming deficit.

Drug Deaths In Focus

Statistics from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center released on Feb. 13 showed that more than 800 persons in the state died of drug overdose last year, four times the number in 2001 and an almost 13 percent rise from 2015.

At least one opioid figured in about 86 percent of the deaths last year.

“We are seeing an unprecedented rise in the overdose deaths related to opioids. It seems we have not yet peaked,” warned Bureau for Public Health commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta in an AP report.

According to state officials, the numbers may change as more death certificates come in. The state is on the road to having a West Virginian die every 10 hours, Gupta added.

While fewer opioids are being prescribed, people are turning to affordable replacements to heroin, often tainted with even more powerful substances including fentanyl.

In 2015, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegged West Virginia’s drug overdose fatalities at 41.5 cases for every 100,000 people, the highest in the United States and almost three times the national average. Just in 1999, its rate was below average.

Budget Pressures On Indigent Burial Program

West Virginia allocates around $2 million every year for funeral assistance. This funding is already facing pressure from the aging of the baby boomers.

Allison Adler, spokesperson for state DHHR secretary Bill Crouch, said that in the current fiscal year ending on June 30, 1,508 burials have so far been submitted for payment through the program. The remaining budget is able to cover only 63 more burials.

While Adler offered no comment on the role of drug overdose deaths in the depleted funds, funeral directors directly pinpoint the drug deaths for the current challenge.

“When you get an overdose, typically it's going to be a younger individual who's not financially in a great position,” said Robert C. Kimes of the state’s Funeral Directors Association. He added that some funeral directors he spoke to linked the majority of overdose fatalities to the indigent burial program services.

Many states, Kimes shared, do not provide the same state-level initiative, and most of those who do restrict coverage to recipients of Medicaid and other programs for the poor. Individual counties and cities are left to their own disposal when it comes to funeral assistance in many states, he added.

And it’s not the kind of business he wants to see in their funeral service today and in the future.

“You hate to see a young person’s life thrown away,” Kimes said.

Based on recent figures released by the CDC, the country is seeing a climb in the number of heroin-related deaths, which can be attributed to the significant increase in the number of heroin users. Figures from the United Nation's World Drug Report 2016 revealed that there were around 1 million heroin users in 2014 in the nation, or nearly three times higher than in 2003.

The rising heroin use has been linked to the crackdown on prescription drugs, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, both with painkilling properties comparable to heroin.

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