West Virginia`s state health officer was selected Wednesday to represent one of the hardest-hit regions of the state for drug overdoses on the board of a private foundation that will be distributing the majority of the state`s more than $1 billion in opioid settlements.
Dr. Matthew Christiansen, who also serves as commissioner for the state Bureau for Public Health, was named the director that will represent Cabell, Clay, Boone, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, Mason, Mingo and Wayne counties on the 11-member West Virginia First Foundation board. He was voted to the position by representatives from local governments in each county. Christiansen previously served as director of the state Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Drug Control Policy until being promoted to commissioner and state health officer in January.
During a meeting of local governments in the central southwestern region of the state Wednesday, Christiansen called the foundation and the money “an incredible opportunity for us to right some of the wrongs that have been committed here in West Virginia.”
“We still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind in this room, that we’re not where we need to be.”
Christiansen said he`d like to see resources go to building out the state`s care continuum, especially to prevention and screening efforts, an area that`s been “traditionally underfunded,” to try to reach people before they fall into “that vicious cycle of addiction where it becomes too late.”
In 2021, more than 35% of West Virginia`s overdoses occurred in the region Christiansen will be representing.
“I worry a lot about how we can make sure that we are managing and deploying these dollars in the most accurate way possible in the most transparent way possible,” he said.
The West Virginia First Foundation was created as an initiative of the attorney general`s office, the agency litigating the state`s opioid cases. Officials from 55 West Virginia counties signed on to a memorandum of understanding that allows money to be funneled through the foundation and dictates how it can be spent. The system was given the green light by the state Legislature and Gov. Jim Justice earlier this year.
According to the agreement, the foundation will distribute just under three- quarters of the settlement money won by the state in lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors in West Virginia. Around a quarter will go directly to local communities and 3% will remain in trust. West Virginia is home to the nation’s highest overdose death rate.
All funds must be used to abate the opioid crisis through efforts such as evidence-based addiction treatment, recovery and prevention programs, or supporting law enforcement efforts to curtail distribution.
Under state law, the foundation`s board must be in place by July 17, 60 days after the foundation’s articles of incorporation were filed with the secretary of state`s office.
Five members of the foundation’s board will be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Six board members will be elected as Christiansen was to represent six regions throughout the state.
Others who were nominated to the board Wednesday in unofficial results shared during public meetings were Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce from Wood County, in the northwestern part of the state, and Berkeley County Community Corrections Director Tim Czaja in the eastern panhandle region. Official results will be certified within a week.
Last week, local government officials in central southeastern West Virginia elected Dr. Tony Kelly, an emergency room physician, to be the board`s inaugural director. Kelly has around 40 years of experience working in hospitals in historic coal mining cities like Beckley and Welch.
Northern West Virginia officials are meeting in Ohio County and Monongalia County on Thursday to elect two representatives.
Prior to joining the state office of drug control policy, Christiansen was active in primary care and addiction treatment. He earned his medical degree and a master’s degree in public health from Marshall University.
Over the past four years, drug manufacturers, distribution companies, pharmacies and other companies with roles in the opioid business have reached settlements totaling more than $50 billion with governments.
While the biggest amounts are in nationwide settlements, West Virginia __ perhaps the state hardest hit by the prescription drug overdose crisis __ has been aggressive in bringing its own lawsuits and reaching more than a dozen settlements.
In May, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced that the state had settled with Kroger for $68 million over its role in distributing highly addictive prescription painkillers in West Virginia. Walgreens settled in January for $83 million while Walmart and CVS settled with the state in September. Walmart agreed to a settlement of just over $65 million and CVS for $82.5 million. Last August, Rite Aid settled for up to $30 million to resolve similar litigation.
The West Virginia First Foundation will be headed by an executive director appointed by Morrisey and approved by its board. A rapid search is underway to select an executive director within the next month or two. The state has hired the search firm DRiWaterstone Human Capital, based in Arlington, Virginia, to help identify candidates.
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