Dr. Matthew Christiansen, state health officer (left), is congratulated Wednesday morning after being elected region 5 representative on the West Virginia First Foundation. Christiansen, will be one of 11 directors on the board, which will oversee the majority of the state’s $1 billion in opioid litigation funds. (Lori Kersey | West Virginia Watch)
West Virginia’s top health official will be part of an 11-member board that will oversee the majority of the state’s opioid litigation funds.
Local governments in region 5 — Boone, Cabell, Clay, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Mason, Mingo, Putnam and Wayne counties — met Wednesday morning at the Kanawha County Courthouse and elected Dr. Matthew Christiansen to represent them on the West Virginia First Foundation board.
Christiansen, the state health officer and commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health, is a primary care and addiction medicine physician and the former director of the state’s Office of Drug Control Policy. He also serves as associate Professor in the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, Department of Family and Community Health.
Speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s meeting, Christiansen said serving on the board is an “incredible responsibility to make sure that we’re deploying these dollars in a way that meets the needs of West Virginia citizens.”
The state’s opioid litigation funds total around $1 billion.
The net amount of that money after attorney fees and court costs will be divided three ways — 72.5% to the foundation, 24.5% to local governments and 3% in a state trust in anticipation of future litigation.
The West Virginia First Foundation Board will be made up of 11 members — five appointed by the governor, and one to represent each of six regions of the state.
Gov. Jim Justice has not yet appointed anyone to the foundation. He said during a briefing last week that he plans to do so “really soon.” The board must be complete by July 17.
Christiansen said asking local governments what they need, holding community meetings and doing local assessments will be important parts of the process of deciding how to spend the money.
“A lot of money has already been invested in the addiction infrastructure for the past couple of decades, and so we have a lot of treatment programs,” Christiansen said. “We have a lot of treatment beds. We have more treatment providers out there than we’ve ever had. We have more naloxone out in communities than we’ve ever had.
“And so, now our onus is to look at these dollars as an opportunity to fine tune those systems, identify continued gaps or areas that we’re unable to fund with other sources,” he said.
Christiansen said he had thought a lot about how he, as state health officer, would represent the needs of the local governments he will represent. If there are conflicts of interest, he would recuse himself from those votes, he said.
“I think the importance here is transparency and accountability around where the money is going so that everyone can see that there’s no nefarious issues happening that would account for that,” Christiansen said. He added that he doesn’t foresee any areas where conflicts might be an issue.
Other regions of the state are also working to elect their representatives. Last week Dr. Tony Kelly, an emergency room doctor, was elected to represent region 6 — Fayette, Monroe, Raleigh, Summers, Nicholas, Webster, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Mercer, Wyoming and McDowell counties — on the board.
Region 1 — Brooke, Hancock, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties — will meet Thursday evening at the Highlands Event Center in Triadelphia.
Region 2 — Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Mineral, Berkeley, Jefferson, Pendleton and Morgan counties – was expected to meet in Berkeley County Wednesday afternoon. Region 3 — Wood, Tyler, Pleasants, Ritchie, Wirt, Calhoun, Roane and Jackson counties — was expected to meet Wednesday afternoon at the Judge Donald F. Black Courthouse Annex in Parkersburg.
Region 4 — Monongalia, Braxton, Lewis, Harrison, Marion, Preston, Taylor, Tucker, Barbour, Randolph, Gilmer, Doddridge and Upshur counties — will meet Thursday in Monongalia County.
Christiansen was chosen to represent region 5 over other nominees John Smith, Dr. C. Donovan “Dino” Beckett and Brett Tomblin.
Smith, the only other nominee present at Wednesday’s meeting, said he runs Lincoln County’s Drug Prevention Coalition and is a recovery coach.
“I’m a person in long-term recovery and I’m very intimately involved in fighting the opioid epidemic,” Smith said.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey encouraged Smith and others to be involved with the foundation despite not being elected to the board.
“There’s room at the inn for everyone,” he said. “There are so many needs with this new foundation.”
According to the memorandum of understanding, the board will appoint an expert panel in the fields of substance abuse treatment, mental health, law enforcement, pharmacology, finance, health care policy and management to assist in making decisions about strategies for abating the opioid epidemic.
“So I would say to everyone here and people not here, please get involved in the process,” Morrisey said. “These are your dollars. This is a critical challenge facing West Virginia. And there is no limit on the number of advisory panels you can serve.”
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