Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, speaks on the Senate floor on Tuesday. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Legislators are considering a host of questions related to the state’s public health insurance agency. Campus carry continues to move through the statehouse, even as West Virginia University confronts a growing mental health crisis. But first, lawmakers have advanced a bill that would give state and local officials tighter control over residential drug treatment facilities.

Lawmakers take aim at residential drug treatment facilities

As they have for decades, opioids continue to ravage the lives of West Virginians. Since 2020, the class of drugs have contributed to over 3,000 fatal overdoses in the state, a per-person death count that’s likely higher than anywhere else in the country.

On Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee heard a bill that could have significant impacts on people seeking treatment. Senate Bill 242, sponsored by Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, would create more local and state oversight on residential treatment facilities.

The legislation, cited by both the legislative attorney and senators as a response to homelessness in Wood County, would require all residential treatment facilities to offer many services including medication-assisted treatment. Public health officials say this kind of treatment is the gold standard option for opioid-use disorders, yet the service is not offered at a majority of facilities in the country, according to a recent University of Pennsylvania study. 

But an amendment, proposed by Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, would also let county commissioners shut down existing facilities. That ability is similar to power a 2021 bill endowed the elected officials over syringe service programs, a bill that led to many harm reduction efforts shutting down.

Mark Drennan, the West Virginia Behavioral Healthcare Providers Association CEO and a former state senator, spoke to the committee in opposition of the bill. In addition to questioning the relationship between homelessness and drug treatment, he said the program could dismantle years of effort to build public health infrastructure in the state.

“We’ve just spent the last decade as the state of West Virginia investing heavily in these,” he told the committee.

Tarr, who defeated Drennan in the 2018 state Senate primary election, responded to the testimony by saying it was important for communities to have a way to prevent out-of-state residents from using West Virginia treatment facilities.

“I’ve seen people say ‘we don’t want you in our town,’” Tarr told Drennan. “And I think they should have that ability to say ‘get out.’”

Ultimately, the senators passed both the bill and the amendment and forwarded it to the Judiciary committee. After the meeting, Drennan reiterated that he thought the bill was the wrong way to go about addressing homelessness.

“It’s problematic, and it could be totally devastating,” he said. —Allen Siegler

WVU students asked lawmakers for mental health funding, not guns on campus

Students walk to and from class on the Evansdale campus of West Virginia University. (WVU Photo/Jennifer Shephard)

During interim meetings last May, lawmakers heard a troubling presentation from the director of West Virginia University’s on-campus counseling center of disturbing increases in reported suicides attempts and suicide threats. 

Student leaders repeatedly asked for additional funding for mental health care but those requests have fallen on deaf ears. Legislative proposals to require universities to study how effective current campus mental health care programs are have gone nowhere.

And now, lawmakers are moving a bill to legalize concealed carry on campus which some say will make the problem worse.

“As a psychologist, as the director of the counseling center, and as a parent, I’m horrified,” said Dr. T. Anne Hawkins, director of the WVU Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services. “I really believe that when we have students who have depression, students who have anxiety, I’m not sure that increasing their access to weapons is wise. What we know is that having guns on campus increases the risk of gun violence on our campus.”

Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, the campus carry bill’s lead sponsor, said in an interview that he does not see the issue as connected to concerns about mental health, and has been trying to get a similar law passed since well before the calls for campus mental health funding increased during the pandemic.

“If somebody wanted to do something, hurt themselves or mass destruction, they could go up here to Lowe’s and make a potato gun out of plastic pipe,” Phillips said. “It can cause more mass destruction than a single shot can.”

The campus carry bill would allow students to carry concealed weapons on most areas of campus and require schools to provide secure storage of those weapons in residence halls. It passed the Senate last week in spite of opposition from multiple university leaders around the state and is currently in the House Judiciary Committee. –Duncan Slade

Read more: As WVU students face a mental health crisis, lawmakers want to legalize guns on campus

Lawmakers still grappling with long-term PEIA fix

PEIA Director Jason Haught speaks to lawmakers last year. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Shoring up the Public Employees Insurance Agency continues to be a key issue for legislators this session. But discussions of what exactly to do about PEIA are running headfirst into a complex mess of questions over how to address the agency’s issues and the exact extent of its financial difficulties. 

Those complications were on full display at Monday’s House Finance Committee budget hearing, with lawmakers hearing directly from PEIA Director Jason Haught. Haught was presented with a flurry of questions on numerous issues facing the beleaguered agency as legislators discussed possible changes to the insurance plans it offered. 

A key moment of the hearing focused on multiple lawmakers’ questions over hospital reimbursement rates. The issue was pushed into the spotlight earlier this month when WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital said that it would no longer accept PEIA insurance as of this summer. The Senate has since passed a bill that would increase the hospital reimbursement rate to be closer to what other states provide. 

Still, legislators questioned if more changes to PEIA were needed. One topic they discussed in particular was raising employee insurance premiums, which have been frozen since 2018. Gov. Jim Justice has pledged that premiums will not increase while he is in office. 

Legislators challenged the wisdom of that decision. “What is the logic, other than a policy decision, not to pass on [the costs] of the premium increase?,” asked Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer. 
Several bills have been introduced on PEIA so far including proposals to condense the agency’s salary tiers, and remove employed spouses from coverage. The proposals suggest that some cuts to employee insurance coverage are likely in the pipeline, though exactly what will happen remains unclear. —P.R. Lockhart

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.