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Virginia Governor's Race 2017: Some Candidates Quiet About Opioid Epidemic
By By Dan Taylor | Arlington Patch  
OP 06/02/2017

Whoever is elected Virginia's new governor on Nov. 7 will have a lot of pressing issues to deal with, not the least of which is the state's growing opioid abuse epidemic. But not all candidates have made that issue a priority.

Last November, State Health Commissioner Marissa Levine declared the opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency, issuing an order that would enable anyone to buy the anti-overdose drug naloxone over the counter.

Virginia averages three overdose deaths every day, and the numbers are going up. Gov. Terry McAuliffe -- who is not eligible to run for re-election due to term limits -- signed four bills into law earlier this year that are meant to stem the epidemic, which included providing initiatives to increase access to naloxone, changing opioid prescription policies, and creating syringe-services programs.

Of the five leading candidates running for governor -- Ed Gillespie, Frank Wagner, Corey Stewart, Ralph Northam, and Tom Perriello -- some have placed a great emphasis on the opioid epidemic, and others have been relatively or completely silent on the issue.

Perriello, a Democrat, has been one of the most vocal, writing a post on Medium.com on May 21 titled, "The Opioid Epidemic Has Devastated Virginia’s Families. Here’s How I Will Fight Back."

Noting that there were more than 1,400 drug-related deaths in Virginia in 2016, a 38 percent increase over 2015, Perriello said he would build on McAuliffe's recent efforts to implement reforms aimed at making naloxone more available and creating syringe exchange programs to stop the transmission of disease.

He said his priorities would be to provide alternative pain treatment options to Virginians, hold providers accountable for unnecessary opioid prescriptions, introduce family and community programs aimed at preventing drug abuse, and treat addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue.

Northam, the other Democrat in the race, echoed similar concerns in a statement provided to Patch: "As a doctor, I know firsthand that the opioid epidemic does not discriminate. Every day, we lose three Virginians to accidental opioid overdose, and last year we lost over 1,000. As lieutenant governor, I've worked across the aisle to pass important reforms to help people move towards recovery and to help doctors use better prescribing practices. As governor, I'll continue doing everything I can to expand access to new substance abuse treatment options and drug courts, and I'll use my medical expertise to lead on this issue."

None of the three Republicans running for governor -- Ed Gillespie, Frank Wagner, and Corey Stewart -- responded to Patch's request for comment on the issue.

Gillespie has addressed the opioid crisis on his official website, however.

"Our mental and behavioral healthcare safety net is inadequate, falling far short of what our most vulnerable citizens deserve," the website states. "The challenge for Virginia’s next governor will be to strengthen our mental and behavioral health services and address the crisis of drug addiction that is sweeping across every community in every region of our great Commonwealth."

The site states that Gillespie will improve the mental healthcare system to make sure people get the treatment they need.

"I will work with healthcare and law enforcement experts to develop a comprehensive solution that addresses all facets of the addiction crisis, including prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery," the statement adds. "If we do this right, we can not only save lives, but taxpayer dollars as well."

The other two candidates have not been as vocal on the issue. Wagner's website does not even mention the opioid epidemic, although he did address the topic in an April 28 interview with the Daily Press in southeast Virginia.

"It’s a multi-pronged problem and it’s a multi-pronged solution," he said. "First and foremost it’s education among our people about the dangers. Prevention and education is key to stop the cycle. We’ve done significant reforms in terms of physicians’ ability to prescribe these particular painkillers."

Wagner also proposed more "harsh" treatment for those dealing heroin.

"We need to recognize those who are already addicted," he added. "We need to ensure we have the detoxification facilities. It would be our goal to want to get every addict back to being a productive member of society."

Stewart -- President Trump's Virginia state chair during the campaign before he was fired in October -- also does not mention the opioid epidemic on his website, choosing instead to focus on issues like the 2nd Amendment, illegal immigration, and preserving Confederate monuments.

Unlike Wagner, he doesn't appear to have made any public statements regarding opioid addiction.

Images via candidates' official websites and Wikimedia

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