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Number of insured in WV starts to level off

CHARLESTON — While West Virginia made progress years ago in decreasing the number of uninsured people in the state, a U.S. Census Bureau report released Tuesday suggests that progress may be slowing after no change in the rate of insurance coverage between 2017 and 2018.

In 2018, 114,000 people — or 6.4% — in West Virginia did not have health insurance, an insignificant change compared to 2017, according to the report. The Associated Press reported that nationally, 27.5 million people, or 8.5% of the population, lacked health insurance coverage last year, an increase of 1.9 million uninsured.

In West Virginia, the number of uninsured rose in 2017, and coupled with the lack of change last year, that may indicate a curb in the early progress made enrolling people after West Virginia expanded Medicaid, according to Sean O'Leary, a policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

"West Virginia should be proud of the progress made in reducing the number of people who don't have access to health care," O'Leary said in a news release. "Over 114,000 people in the state are still uninsured, and with recent gains in coverage beginning to be lost, there is still work to be done to make sure every West Virginian has access to quality and affordable health care coverage."

West Virginia leaders decided to expand Medicaid under the Affordable

Care Act starting in 2014, which significantly reduced the number of uninsured people in the state, according to earlier Census Bureau reports, as well as reports from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

According to West Virginia Kids Count, the Mountain State holds one of the lowest rates nationally of children without health insurance, due to programs like the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), as well as Medicaid expansion in the state. Per the report, only 3% of the state's children live without insurance.

Since 2016, though, about 48,000 people in West Virginia have lost their health insurance.

O'Leary and others in the state worry that moves at the Legislature could exacerbate this trend if state lawmakers continue trying to pass Medicaid work requirements. Earlier this year, a bill was introduced that would have required all "able-bodied" people, with some exceptions, to work, train, volunteer or be in a substance abuse treatment program for at least 20 hours each week to receive Medicaid benefits.

The bill ultimately died in the House of Delegates, but, in his release, O'Leary said future attempts — if passed — could rob even more of their health insurance. If a bill were passed requiring work requirements for Medicaid benefits, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources would have to apply to the federal government allowing such stipulations, he said.

Sixteen states have applied for such waivers, and the federal government has approved six of those applications, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Seven applications are pending, and three have been set aside by a court through tense legal battles involving agencies like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Arkansas implemented its Medicaid work requirements in June 2018 and lawsuits shortly followed, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. One such lawsuit, filed in December 2018, alleges that 17,000 people lost their Medicaid benefits in less than six months after the policy went into effect.

While advocates were pleased to see that West Virginia's numbers didn't slide in 2018, they said it's crucial to keep a focus on shrinking the number of uninsured in the state.

"We must ... remain diligent to not allow our uninsured rates to slip back to pre-Affordable Care Act numbers nor artificially restrict access to vital insurance programs such as Medicaid through harmful policies," Jessica Ice, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said in Tuesday's release.

According to the AP, more people nationally were covered by Medicare in 2018, reflecting the aging of baby boomers. But Medicaid coverage declined. The number of uninsured children also rose, and there were more uninsured adults ages 35-64.

Though the increase in the number of uninsured Americans was modest, it could be a turning point, the first real sign that coverage gains during the presidency of Barack Obama could be at least partly reversed, according to the AP, which reported that this year the number of uninsured could rise again because a previous Republican-led Congress repealed fines under the Affordable Care Act that had been intended to prod people to sign up for coverage.

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Caity Coyne at caity. coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.


Safety forum fields public concerns, experts' facts

HUNTINGTON — The nationwide opioid epidemic has spawned scores of byproduct problems touching virtually everyone in every community it hits, and naturally elicits a spectrum of opinions.

That cross-cut of the Huntington community's experiences and concerns on how best to address those matters peppered the more than 2 1/2-hour-long public safety forum Tuesday night at Christ Temple Church in Huntington.

Organized by Cabell County Commissioner Kelli Sobonya and Del. John Mandt Jr., R-Cabell, a panel of local experts representing public health, emergency responders, and homeless and addiction services sparked a fruitful presentation, fielding questions from the audience well past the scheduled 8 p.m. closing.

Speaking included Stacy Nowicki-Eldridge of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety; U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart; Dr. Michael Kilkenny, physician director of Cabell-Huntington Health Department; Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle; Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial; Gordon Merry and Connie Priddy of Cabell County EMS; Amanda Coleman, executive director for the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless; Pastor Mike Greider of Kentucky Recovery; Craig Hettlinger of the Huntington Addiction Wellness Center; and J.B. Akers of the Akers Law Firm in Huntington.

Major topics of discussion revolved around the public safety issues surrounding widespread opioid use, such as property and violent crime, homelessness, syringe litter and drug trafficking.

Stuart emphasized the sharp increase in federal resources that have been funneled to combat Huntington's local drug trade, and reiterated his hardline stance as a self-proclaimed "lock 'em up" prosecutor. That mindset differs between incarcerating low-level offenders — many of whom are also in addiction themselves and deserve compassion — and those connected to larger, organized drug trafficking syndicates.

Locally, Zerkle and Dial jointly discussed a new initiative by their departments, coming next month to target crime specifically within Huntington's homeless community. Dial added that this venture doesn't target homeless people simply because of their socioeconomic status, adding that crime happens at all levels of society, but rather pinpoints known offenders within an otherwise generally peaceful group.

"We're not negatively concerned about their socioeconomic status. We're negatively concerned if you're committing crimes in our city," Dial said.

The plan is similar to what Akers outlined that had been used in Charleston among that city's homeless population three years earlier. In their method, homeless individuals were presented with options to either be connected to social services or provided the means to return to where they considered home.

On Cabell County's declining overdose totals, which fell by 40% in 2018, Merry and Priddy reiterated that overdose calls are not being coded as cardiac arrests, responding to a false theory floated in public to explain the drop. Merry said that while a call may be dispatched as a cardiac arrest by Cabell County 911, it's ultimately determined whether or not to be an overdose by the paramedic arriving on scene.

Priddy added that Huntington has grown to be a national model for how a community can recover from widespread addiction. That's because it was quick to admit it had a problem and worked to address it.

"We can't sit there and think it's somebody else's problem; it's our problem" Priddy said. "But what we did was to embrace the problem and decide that we're going to do something about it."

Coleman dispelled a handful of misconceptions about homelessness and how HIV has impacted her organization's work. More than half of those in Cabell County's cluster face "unstable housing" and many are outright homeless.

Coleman said that while Cabell County's homeless population has fallen from 227 in 2015 to 171 at the present, there's been a dramatic increase in "unsheltered homeless" (those on the streets rather than a shelter), leading to the perception there are more homeless individuals in Huntington. More than 30% of these individuals have some mental health issues, making it difficult for them to find stable housing.

While most are from Cabell County, the majority of those not from Cabell County come from Logan, Lincoln and Mingo counties, Coleman said, counties that don't offer the homeless services Cabell does.

There was no shortage of hands raised when it came time for questions from the public, though most rather made comments of support, with a handful of distractions.

One man suggested voting down the levy that supports funding to the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, but was met with near silence except for a few negative remarks. Another woman asked those currently in a recovery program, which made up around one-third of the auditorium, if the department's syringe exchange had enabled their addiction. None raised their hands, but all raised their hands when asked if it did not enable them.

Sobonya ended the forum by saying more forums will be scheduled in the future, with at least one more set before Christmas.


WV sports wagering apps begin modestly

CHARLESTON — Early revenue figures from the West Virginia Lottery Commission indicate a modest launch for sports wagering mobile apps in the state.

For the week ending Aug. 31 — the week that mobile apps offered by DraftKings and FanDuel launched — mobile gaming apps produced $25,035 in revenue.

FanDuel, affiliated with The Greenbrier casino, launched that Monday, while Draft-Kings, affiliated with Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, launched on Wednesday of that week.

That revenue compares with $648,974 in revenue from on-site sportsbooks operating at three of the state's five casinos for the week.

While numbers for the week ending Sept. 7 have yet to be posted, Lottery financials for the Sept. 6-8 weekend shows mobile app revenue of $28,295.

That number would have been considerably higher had not the mobile apps sustained losses of $76,442 on Sunday, as the first full day of NFL games this season featured several major upsets, including the Tennessee Titans upending the Cleveland Browns.

During the three-day period, mobile app players wagered $1.12 million and collected $1.09 million in winnings.

Saturday was the busiest day, with $448,979 in wagers, ahead of $431,417 wagered Sunday.

"The total handle was up with the start of the football season, as projected, and we expect the mobile app play to grow in future weeks," said Lottery Director John Myers.

When Delaware North simultaneously launched on-site sportsbooks at its Mardi Gras and Wheeling Island casinos and mobile wagering apps late last December, revenue from the mobile apps similarly started slow, growing over the next five to six weeks.

However, Delaware North shut down both its BetLucky app and sportsbooks at the casinos in early March over a legal dispute with its gaming technology provider and has been offline since.

While sports betting apps can be downloaded from any location, under the state law legalizing sports betting, the apps are required to have geolocation technology to verify that the bettor is in West Virginia when wagers are placed.

The state collects a 10% privilege tax on sports betting revenues, amounting to $2,503.50 on sports betting apps for the week ending Aug. 31.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.


Tri-State to observe 9/11 with remembrances, volunteering

HUNTINGTON — Eighteen years after the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, Sept. 11 still is observed by many who continue to take up the mantle to "never forget" what happened on that fateful day in 2001.

Locally, the Cabell County Career Technology Center will conduct a special flag retirement ceremony and day of remembrance at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Honor guard/color guard services will be provided by American Legion Post 16 in conjunction with other area American Legion and VFW posts. Woodmen Life has donated a new flag to fly in front of the school.

The governors of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are asking all residents to observe a moment of silence beginning at 8:46 a.m. Wednesday in remembrance of all the lives lost as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Flags will also be flown at half-staff on Sept. 11.

Volunteering or giving back is also a way some choose to remember those lost on 9/11.

At King's Daughters Medical Center in Ashland, a memorial blood drive will take place from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Health Education Center, lower level of the Lexington Avenue Parking Garage. Walk-ins are welcome, or to schedule an appointment,

call 800-775-2522 or visit KyBloodCenter.org.

As a thank you to donors on Wednesday, the Kentucky Blood Center will give all donors a free "9/11 Never Forget" T-shirt.

Later, the annual Marshall March of Remembrance will take place at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday as a procession of Marshall students carry 75 flags from the Marshall Rec Center on 5th Avenue, south on 20th Street, to Spring Hill Cemetery. The students will place the flags in the Healing Field, a display of American flags in the cemetery, before joining the Patriot Day ceremony.

This year's Patriot Day Ceremony, an annual observance to honor the memory of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks, at the cemetery will include local officials, first responders, veterans of the U.S. military, Greater Huntington Park & Recreation District Executive Director Kevin Brady and patriotic music from local singers. This ceremony is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the cemetery. Light refreshments will be provided afterward.

Thursday, Sept. 12, will be set aside as a "day of reflection" before the Healing Field display, which was put in place Sept. 5, is taken down Friday, Sept. 13.