BRISTOL, Va. — A team of health experts gathered Monday morning with one goal in mind — educating business leaders in the Twin City.
The discussion titled The Opioid Crisis: Removing Barriers to Saving Lives was held at the Bristol Train Station by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association.
Last year, 1,186 opioid drug overdoses were reported in Tennessee and there were 1,133 in Virginia, according to the two state departments of health.
“Addiction is considered a disease,” said panelist Dr. Karen Shelton, medical director for the Mount Rogers Health District. “We’re trying to educate people and the promising thing about opioid addiction is that we can treat it. It’s not an easy treatment at all – but it can be treated.”
The panel discussion is a pilot program and chamber President and CEO Beth Rhinehart said she hopes to expand the discussion and encourage other chambers to host similar events.
“This is truly a great partnership to be able to bring together our business members and give them information about the opioid crisis,” Rhinehart said. “The topics discussed are just a small portion of issues that are surrounding the opioid epidemic.”
Panelist Teresa Viers, of Highlands Community Services, works with those individuals who are going through drug court and actively working to find a job.
The opioid crisis has forced many employers to make the choice between getting their workers costly help for their drug problems or putting out help-wanted signs to fill the positions, she said.
“The individuals we serve through the drug court program who have been addicted to drugs have to work to gain employment so we can get them back to being productive citizens,” Viers said. “Most jobs they can get are fast-food jobs and for many that is difficult – but these people are still good people and we see all walks of life come through our doors and our programs.”
Casteel said his office started seeing an increase in the number of foster care cases across Southwest Virginia because of the ongoing drug problem across rural Appalachia.
“We first started seeing a major impact about 15 years ago in Lee County with Oxycontin,” Casteel said. “The rise of that drug literally increased foster care cases overnight. We went from 23 cases to 100. The impacts are unimaginable and it’s now impacting the entire state.”
The panel discussion concluded with remarks from Dr. Hughes Melton, deputy health commissioner for Virginia, who shared how most of the financial burden for opioid addiction and prevention efforts has been placed on the public sector. Melton said he would like to see more creative ways for businesses to get involved.
“Addiction has a very hyper-local phenomenon,” Melton said. “The opioid crisis looks very different in Southwest Virginia than it does in Northern Virginia or even into Tidewater. I want communities in Southwest Virginia to be impactful and work together with stakeholders – because the way addiction impacts an individual, it affects the entire community as a whole.”