Tackling Addiction and Supporting Research to Improve Health and Economic Growth in West Virginia

Izzy Okparanta

The percentage of working-age civilians in West Virginia who are employed has dropped below 50% for the first time in decades, partly due to a steep rise in opioid addiction across the state, said Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) during Research!America’s program “West Virginia Research and Innovation: A Catalyst for Better Health and Economic Growth” on October 16 at Shepherd University. Sen. Manchin and other speakers at the event discussed possible solutions to West Virginia’s opioid crisis and ways to reposition the state as a regional and national research leader.

“We’ve got thousands and thousands of jobs in West Virginia going unfulfilled,” Manchin said. “Every job fair we had over 100 employers looking to hire, but everybody walks away not finding the people they need. There’s three things keeping you out of the workforce: addiction, conviction or lack of skill set.”

Manchin stressed the importance of bipartisanship in successfully tackling the opioid epidemic. Earlier this year, he and Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) re-introduced “Jessie’s Law,” legislation to help inform medical professionals of patients’ previous opioid addiction, a move supported by many of their constituents. Nearly 90% of West Virginians say it is important for medical records to prominently state whether a patient is recovering from addiction to prevent overprescribing of opioids in the same way they are marked if a patient is allergic to penicillin, according to a state-based survey commissioned by Research!America.

Sen. Capito said getting federal research dollars to smaller, lesser-known institutions in West Virginia and nationwide could be key to tackling the opioid epidemic.

“If we’re going to talk about the opioid and drug abuse issue where we are ground central, why shouldn’t our universities be at the leading edge of providing that expertise in research and technology? We’re there. We’re living it,” she added.

A strong majority of West Virginians agree that federal taxpayer funds should be used to support scientific research at public universities (77%), and that the state and federal government should assign a higher priority to improving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers (85%).

Sen. Capito lauded the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which seeks to broaden the geographic distribution of NIH’s biomedical research funding, and the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which encourages domestic small businesses to engage in federal research/research and development that has the potential for commercialization.

“The state of West Virginia is fortunate to be represented by two senators who know and understand the needs of the state,” said Mary J.C. Hendrix PhD, president, Shepherd University.

Dr. Brad Fenwick, Senior VP, Global Strategic Alliances, Elsevier, noted that West Virginia is a world scientific leader in nanotubes, carbon and nanostructures.

“That’s a big deal,” Fenwick said. “And I’m not even sure West Virginia knows that they’re that strong.” Fenwick said it’s crucial for West Virginia to inform outsiders about its research prowess to avoid getting passed over by potential business and research investors. “So if you’re a company working in [nanotubes, carbon and nanostructures], and you’re looking for expertise or a place to locate your research or somebody to collaborate with, if they don’t know West Virginia and these researchers are that strong, they’ll go to the usual suspects. They’ll show up at Stanford or MIT and miss the opportunity of working with West Virginia.”

“People [in West Virginia] say, significantly more so than in the rest of the country, that we’re simply not spending enough money on research,” said Research!America president and CEO Mary Woolley. “We’ve got problems that are overwhelming to us all, sometimes seeming intractable, but we’re not putting the investment in to get out in front, to find the cures, to find the preventions and the treatments. It’s time to do better.”

Other speakers included Dr. Marcia Brand, senior advisor, DentaQuest Foundation; Fred White, senior director of business development, ABS Consulting; Cannon Wadsworth, director, State and Commercial Programs at Global Science & Technology, Inc.; and Lieutenant Colonel Adelaido Godinez. The panel discussion was moderated by Judith Miller Jones, director of the National Health Policy Forum, the George Washington University.

Click here to watch a recording of the event.

Click here to learn more about our 2017 West Virginia survey.

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You can change the image of things to come. But you can’t do it sitting on your hands … The science community should reach out to Congress and build bridges.
The Honorable John E. Porter