Learn what it's like to be a reporter covering the opioid epidemic in one of the country's hardest-hit areas | Washington Week

Learn what it's like to be a reporter covering the opioid epidemic in one of the country's hardest-hit areas

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By Amy Hansen 

The numbers surrounding America’s opioid epidemic are staggering.

In 2015, more than 33,000 people died from an overdose, 12.5 million people misused the drugs, and the estimated economic impact clocked in at roughly $78.5 million, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In this new semi-regular digital feature, we’ll go beyond the data to talk with public media journalists reporting on the issue in some of the country’s hardest-hit areas.

The series kicks off with Ohio Valley ReSource reporter Aaron Payne. He’s part of a regional reporting group covering Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio.  According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control figures, those states had some of the highest amounts of drug overdose deaths in 2015.  

But West Virginia has the highest death rate: 41.5 deaths per 100,000 people, a nearly 17 percent increase from the previous year.  

Some West Virginia employers have adopted an interesting approach to helping people who misuse opioids.  Read the interview below to find out more, along with what President Donald Trump’s recent declaration about the opioid crisis meant to people in the state and the moment that made Payne tear up during his reporting process.

I read one of your pieces that highlighted a company that works to give jobs to former addicts. Is that a common solution that the business community is embracing and is it working?

I don't know if it's as popular of a mentality as it was at Ziegenfelder, which is the frozen treat factory in the story that I highlighted, but it's definitely starting to catch on. You're seeing more and more companies realizing that if they want to be able to have a full staff, they might want to invest in people who, maybe in their past, did go through a substance use disorder but have come out on the other side and are looking for work.  

There's just statistics that show that there are benefits to hiring these individuals, whether it be from company loyalty to the benefits of getting someone treatment rather than firing them and having to bring somebody new in and train them only to lose them as well. Again, it is not quite widespread here yet, but there are companies that are starting to adopt this approach.

You work on a regional reporting project across some of those harder hit states like Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Are you seeing any collaboration from lawmakers on the state level to work together to try and find a solution or is it more siloed and isolated?

On the legislative level, there are some conversations [between] state representatives that are in border counties. Let's say somebody represents Meigs County, Ohio, that is right on the border to West Virginia. You will see some of those legislators talk back and forth, but as far as the big picture, you're not quite seeing collaboration between these states. That's probably most indicative in the way that these states collect data. The data journalist that works for the Ohio Valley ReSource has to find a way to make it universal, but they just don't check the data the same way.  

You're definitely seeing it in academia. Last month there was a consortium that met in Northern Kentucky. it was people leading the research in addiction from universities in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and other states as well, all coming together and saying, "We have this research, what do you have? What do you have? How can we benefit the public by collaborating on this?" That was the first meeting of that group. You're maybe not seeing it in statehouses collaborating with other statehouses, but you're certainly seeing it in academia.

In late October, President Trump said that the country is in a public health emergency regarding the opioid crisis. Did that declaration change anything that you're seeing?

Not necessarily. Talking to public health officials in the region about that declaration, they were happy that there's attention being placed on it. President Trump signaling that it was a public health emergency certainly indicated to them that the opioid crisis is a priority for The White House. But as far as action and results, they kind of wanted to see a little bit more in several areas, but especially in funding. That's something that hasn't quite made its way specifically to West Virginia.

There have been grants, rounds of grants, from the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act and 21st Century Cures bill, and some of that money is not making its way to West Virginia.

When President Trump made the public health emergency declaration, he talked about providing more funding, but there is some skepticism in that. Some of this funding that's already available is not quite making it to this region, so, as far as results, it's kind of a wait and see type thing. Rome wasn't built in a day, and certainly the opioid crisis won't be solved in a day, either. But it was a mixed bag for people in West Virginia.  

During your reporting, did you ever have a moment where you may have realized the scope of the situation?

I did a story on neonatal abstinence syndrome and what the medical community and other treatment communities are trying to do to prepare and treat both mother and newborn in that instance. I spoke to a mother that was at a new treatment facility specifically designed for mothers. She agreed to talk to me, but she didn't want to use her real name.  

She had one child that was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Then she got pregnant again. She immediately went into treatment, and that second child was born without neonatal abstinence syndrome. To hear her talk, and the pride that she had in being able to accomplish that, that moment just kind of sticks with you. I think that's the only time I've ever cried during an interview.

It's just stories like that that kind of keep you going, knowing that it's not hopeless. It seems like it is because the numbers just keep getting worse and worse, but there's a lot of good people working on the ground, and there's a lot of people, good people, seeking treatment to get out of this crisis. That's just kind of what keeps you going.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Learn more about Ohio Valley ReSource by clicking here to visit the group's website.