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House committee passes amended syringe exchange bill

CHARLESTON — The House of Delegates Health and Human Resources Committee on Thursday passed an amended version of the bill pertaining to syringe exchanges in West Virginia.

Senate Bill 334 establishes a licensing program within the state Department of Health and Human Resources for harm reduction programs operating syringe exchange programs. All new and existing programs will need to apply to the Office for Health Facility Licensure and Certification.

The House Health committee amended the bill to cap fees for the license. The committee also added a provision to allow programs to bill for Medicaid for harm reduction services.

The penalties for operating a syringe exchange outside of the law are still included, but penalties were changed and liability protection built in to protect workers.

Other aspects of the bill that health officials say will prohibit them from operating remain, including the 1:1 exchange requirement and requiring a West Virginia I.D.

Caitlyn Sussman, a social worker with the Morgantown Health Right harm reduction program, told the committee an I.D. requirement drastically impacts programs’ ability to get people in the door. She said many don’t have an I.D. and other just don’t trust providing identification because they are using illegal substances.

When identification was required in Charleston’s program, it resulted in a 50% reduction in people who use the program. Requiring an I.D. also negatively impacted Huntington’s program. Restrictions to harm reduction programs lead to higher chances of HIV outbreaks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are the bridge that gets them to the other side,” Sussman said of harm reduction.

The committee also amended the bill to add back in a requirement of support from the county commission or municipality in which the program will operate. In the case of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department harm reduction program, it would need support from city council. This provision was included in the original Senate version. The Senate also included support from the county sheriff.

Del. Evan Worrell, R-Cabell, submitted the amendment. He said he wanted to ensure rural areas like his — Barboursville, mainly — had a say in a syringe exchange programs starting.

The bill is also referenced to the Judiciary Committee.

In other business, the committee also passed Senate Bill 387, which continues the pilot program for drug testing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, recipients.

The committee amended the bill to extend the program until 2026.

Committee members received a packet of information from the DHHR on TANF recipients and the program. The information included personal information including names of TANF recipients. The packets were collected from members and destroyed, committee chair Del. Jeff Pack said.

Jeremiah Samples, deputy secretary for DHHR, said he would investigate how the classified information got into the packet.

The drug testing pilot was started in 2017. Since then, 131 positive drug tests have been found but only one person has completed treatment. Those who are found positive must complete a drug treatment program before receiving assistance.

An adult must have a child to be eligible for TANF.

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, attempted to amend the bill to remove marijuana from the substances tested for, but that amendment was rejected. Of the 131 positives, 61 were only positive for marijuana, or 46%. Because cannabis stays in the system longer than other substances, Pushkin said this program basically just screens for cannabis.

“This is an optics bill,” Pushkin said. “If you really want to help people you can fund the Jobs and Hope program we are about to defund tomorrow.”

Del. Danielle Walker, D-Mongongalia, brought up her neighbor who was on TANF from 2002-10. She was also on TANF for a part of that time. She said she thought she understood the bill until she saw the names on the information sheet.

“Those are your neighbors,” she said. “... Are you gong to put in work for the poor folks of West Virginia? Are you going to put in work to give them a little bit of decency? Put in work to take away those questionnaires that we don’t even have to fill out when we put our names on our ballots?”


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Easter, Passover week affected by pandemic for second straight year

HUNTINGTON — A few weeks before Easter Sunday in 2020, large gatherings were stopped as the coronavirus threatened the area. One year later, some congregations are still abiding by safety precautions as they prepare to hold worship services.

For some houses of worship, Easter is one of the most highly attended services each and every year. Some congregations also celebrate with different events throughout the week leading up to Easter.

With a year of navigating challenges brought on by the pandemic under their belt, many places of worship are adjusting their plans this year as they take precautions, even though some local restrictions have loosened.

Pea Ridge United Methodist had planned an outdoor Maundy Thursday service but moved things indoors because of low temperatures. In the sanctuary, prayer stations were set up, guiding participants through the events leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection.

Pastor Shannon Blosser said the event was well attended and the church plans to hold two in-person worship services Easter Sunday morning at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. It also will host an online prayer service earlier that morning beginning at 6:30 a.m.

Fellowship Baptist will once again hold its Easter worship service in the parking lot of the Huntington Mall, beginning at 10:30 a.m., the church announced. It hosted a drive-in worship service on Easter Sunday 2020, and plans to do the same this year, rain or shine, and will also offer a seating area for lawn chairs.

Pea Ridge Baptist Church will hold its Easter worship gathering on its parking lot at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Last year, its service was closed to the public.

Those attending are asked to bring their own chairs. The church is also offering a socially distant prayer walk on its campus, which is open during daylight hours Friday and Saturday.

Those of Jewish faith do not celebrate Easter, but are nearing the end of Passover Week, which began Saturday, March 27. Rabbi Robert Judd, of B’nai Sholom Congregation in Huntington, said all of the teachings and communal events for the week were done virtually, just as they were last year.

While the congregation’s services have remained closed for more than a year, Judd said they hope to be able to reopen by fall 2021.

“We are still being cautious as more and more people get vaccinated, as that happens we will think about opening up hopefully by the High Holidays. We want to give everyone a chance to get vaccinated and feel comfortable. We have an aging population and don’t want to put anyone at risk.”

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Huntington held an in-person Maundy Thursday service, will do an online only Good Friday service and then will gather in-person Easter Sunday morning, splitting those in attendance into two services.

The church opened up in-person services on Palm Sunday, which was March 28. It is filling each of the two services by reservation and is requiring those who plan to attend to reserve their seat by contacting the church office at 304-546-1499 or wvstpeters@comcast.net.

If both services are filled prior to Sunday, the church said it will consider adding a third in-person service Easter morning. All live services at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church are dependent on Cabell County’s color designation on the COVID-19 risk map, and will be held unless the county has a “Red” designation.


News
Judge declines to toss opioid lawsuit as trial set to start next month

HUNTINGTON — Opioid distributors’ last-ditch effort to have a judge throw out Cabell County and Huntington’s claims against them for lack of standing was shot down Wednesday, about a month ahead of trial.

The lawsuits were filed in 2017 against AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson and Cardinal Health — the “Big Three” drug distributors, who are accused of being a public nuisance by blindly pumping pain pills into Appalachia, thus fueling opioid and later heroin addiction. The lawsuits argue the distributors breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates.

In February the defendants had argued the governments lacked standing under West Virginia law to sue for the public nuisance they alleged. They argued West Virginia nuisance law for over 100 years has been confined to cases’ involvement with use of public property or resources, not a product.

They argued the plaintiffs’ claim against them — that a person has the right not to be injured by another’s claimed negligence or a dangerous product — is that of a private nature, not public.

The plaintiffs disagreed, stating the defendants assumed that the opioid epidemic could only infringe on private rights, but the opioid crisis showed the opposite.

In his ruling released Wednesday, Judge David A. Faber said although the allegations against the defendants is not as obvious as the maintenance of an open dump, the same principles apply and may constitute the defendants’ business ideals may have constituted a nuisance.

He said if the defendants were right, a company’s engaging in a generally legal line of business cannot constitute a public nuisance. As examples, the judge referenced a dental office using unlicensed staff to perform root canals or a local restaurant’s habitual service of alcohol to minors and a law maintenance company applying illegal pesticides.

“Because the overall businesses of practicing dentistry, running a restaurant, and operating a lawn maintenance company are lawful, illegal acts that further those businesses would be shielded from the law of public nuisance regardless of the threat to public health,” he wrote.

Plaintiff attorneys Paul T. Farrell Jr. of Farrell Fuller Law & Anne Kearse of Motley Rice LLC said the ruling reaffirms the legacy of the claims and West Virginians’ right to face the distributors.

“Drug distributors ignored their obligations under the Controlled Substance Act and actively pumped pills into American communities like Cabell County and Huntington,” they said. “The repeated attempts by the Big Three distributors to delay their courtroom reckoning will not deter these communities from pursuing the resources they need now to combat the opioid crisis that has only worsened amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The trial is set to move forward May 3, as scheduled.


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Fate of proposed WVU, Marshall budget cuts could become clearer during House session

CHARLESTON — Whether West Virginia University and Marshall University will be hit with multi-million-dollar revenue cuts in the 2021-22 state budget could become a little clearer Friday, when the House of Delegates considers pending amendments to the House version of the budget bill.

House Bill 2022 would cut WVU’s appropriation from $97.02 million to $79.02 million, and would cut Marshall from $46.76 million to $36.76 million. However, it would backfill those cuts using $28 million of what is expected to be more than $200 million in surplus funds from the 2020-21 budget year.

In the Senate’s version of the budget measure (Senate Bill 125), WVU would be cut by $12 million and Marshall’s cut would be $6 million — but those cuts would not be made up with surplus money.

“It’s just tragic, when we’re taking more money from the exact area we should be putting more money into,” Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said during a Senate Finance Committee meeting Wednesday to advance the bill

He noted that state higher education has been targeted for budget cuts year after year.

“This ends up on the backs of West Virginia’s students and potential students in the form of higher tuition and, in some cases, closes the door to higher education,” he said.

Sen. Michael Maroney, R-Marshall, said the cuts are particularly galling considering that the Senate recently approved legislation directing $10 million in state Lottery funds to be used for facility improvements at West Virginia’s racetrack casinos.

“To subsidize our casino industry, and then to take money away from the colleges bothers me,” he said.

The Senate cuts would reduce WVU’s appropriation by 10.8% and Marshall’s appropriation by 12.2%.

Pending in the House is an amendment, submitted by Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, and 12 other Democrat delegates, to fully restore funding for WVU and Marshall in the general revenue budget.

However, also pending is an amendment from Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, and Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, that would strike the sections of the House budget plan committing $18 million in budget surplus to make the two institutions whole.

Through March, the state had a $235 million revenue surplus for the 2020-21 budget year, and that amount is expected to grow over the final three months of the budget year, with the influx of new federal stimulus funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, and with state income tax returns due by May 15.

Pending bills to roll back state personal income tax rates are driving the budget cuts in the House and Senate plans.

The House budget measure cuts Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed $4.569 billion general revenue budget by $82 million in anticipation of losing $75 million in revenue from income tax cuts for the first half-year of a House plan to phase out the tax in annual multiples of $150 million per year (House Bill 3300).

The Senate’s plan cuts $79 million from Justice’s budget, and uses $34 million of the 2020-21 budget surplus to partially backfill some of the cuts.

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday hopped up the House’s proposed income tax phase-out with a first-year cut of $1.09 billion. Although the Senate plan would make up for about $900 million of that reduction in sales tax and other tax hikes, the Senate budget plan also cuts spending in anticipation of steep drops in state revenue.

Currently, personal income tax is the largest single source of state tax revenue, bringing in about $2.1 billion, accounting for about 43% of total general revenue.

Traditionally, the differences in the House and Senate versions of the budget would be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee but, in the past couple of years, the chambers have worked out compromises on the Budget Bill without going into conference.

Currently, items where both bills match, and points where they disagree include:

  • Both bills cut funding for the newly elevated Department of Tourism from $14 million in the governor’s budget to $7 million, but both fund the second $7 million through surplus money.
  • Both bills cut funding for the Milton flood wall from $21 million to $7 million, but both provide the remaining $14 million from surplus.
  • Both bills cut funding for the MARC commuter rail service in the Eastern Panhandle by $2.8 million, and neither uses surplus to restore that amount.

That comes 15 months after the Justice administration, working with the Legislature and county and municipal governments, negotiated a funding plan to keep the Maryland-based passenger rail service operating.

  • The Senate bill zeroes out $3.8 million in funding for the Educational Broadcasting Authority, which operates West Virginia Public Broadcasting, while the House bill fully funds it.

Public Broadcasting has been on the budget-cutting block before. In 2017, Justice’s proposal zeroed out EBA funding, money that was mostly restored in the final budget plan. The Senate bill creates a new account, providing $300,000 for Mountain Stage, a national radio program that is funded under the EBA umbrella.

  • For all state agencies not specifically singled out for spending cuts, the Senate budget bill imposes 1.5% across-the-board cuts, amounting to $21.24 million.

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