WV First Foundation would better serve state if it represented those affected by opioid epidemic

September 5, 2023 5:57 am

A man walks by a billboard for a drug recovery center in Youngstown on July 14, 2017 in Youngstown, Ohio. (Spencer Platt | Getty Images)

Last week, Gov. Jim Justice finally announced his appointments to the West Virginia First Foundation Board, a group that will decide how the state’s opioid settlement money will be spent.

He was only six weeks late in his appointments. Listen, the man loves being fashionably late.

That’s not the only glaring issue.

The foundation is a nonprofit created earlier this year to distribute funds from various legal settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors. The state so far has received about $400 million of its expected $1 billion in settlement money. 

A memorandum of understanding filed by the attorney general’s office outlines that the foundation will be governed by an 11-member board of directors. Five members are to be appointed by the governor. The remaining six  have been elected by officials in local municipalities and counties split into six regions.

Those elected are:

  • Region 1 — Dr. Steven Corder, a psychiatrist and medical director of Northwood Health Systems. He is board certified in psychiatry, as well as neurology and addiction.
  • Region 2 — Timothy Czaj, director of Berkeley County Community Corrections.
  • Region 3 — Tom Joyce, mayor of Parkersburg.
  • Region 4  — Jonathan Board, vice president of external affairs at Mon Health System who announced a run for state Senate after his appointment.
  • Region 5 — Dr. Matthew Christiansen, state health officer and commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health, who is a primary care and addiction medicine physician.
  • Region 6 — Dr. Tony Kelly, partner and operations manager of Appalachian Mountains Medical in Beckley.

Although the articles of incorporation stated, “Applications from current elected officials is strongly discouraged,” Joyce was still elected to the board.

There were also concerns that Joyce was a bad choice because he has linked homelessness in his city to recovery centers, and might not be the most empathetic when it comes to helping those with addiction.

The lack of diversity of those six elected members — they’re all white men — is cause for concern. 

But don’t worry, there’s some diversity in Justice’s five appointments — there are two women among the five white appointees. 

They are:

  • Jeff Sandy, one of Justice’s first cabinet appointments when he took office in 2017 and retired from his position as cabinet secretary for the state Department of Homeland Security last month.
  • Dora Stutler, Harrison County Schools superintendent.
  • Matt Harvey, Jefferson County prosecuting attorney.
  • Greg Duckworth, former state trooper, former head of security at a Justice family-owned resort and current Raleigh County Commissioner. 
  • Alys Smith, a philanthropist and wife of Marshall University president Brad Smith. Brad Smith and Justice are both Marshall graduates and have both held the title of richest West Virginian.

Black people account for about 6% of opioid-related deaths in West Virginia over the last few years.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the opioid epidemic is growing so quickly because of its rapid infiltration into Black communities. In 2020, there was an 86% increase in the opioid death rate for Black people between the ages of 15 and 24. 

Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It affects everyone. The board should also reflect that. Filling it with nine white men and two white women — one the spouse of Marshall University President Brad Smith, the richest person in the state — ain’t it.

So who would be better suited to serve on the West Virginia First Foundation? Here are a few ideas:

  • Literally anyone with a lived addiction experience. John Smith, who was nominated in Region 5 but lost to Christainsen, runs Lincoln County’s Drug Prevention Coalition and is a recovery coach. Smith said he’s a person in long-term recovery and he’s intimately involved in fighting the opioid epidemic.
  • Laura Jones, the executive director of Milan Puskar Health Right in Morgantown who works on the ground with people in the recovery community every day and has made great strides to expand a life-saving harm reduction program in the region despite constraints implemented by the state Legislature.
  • Jan Rader, a former fire chief in Huntington who became the first director of Huntington’s Mayor’s Council on Public Health and Drug Control Policy because of her work on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.
  • A. Toni Young, the founder and executive director of the Community Education Group. The group’s mission is to develop community-level strategies to stop the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and substance abuse, among other things.
  • Rev. James L. Patterson, president of The Partnership of African American Churches, which is a licensed substance misuse disorder provider.
  • Someone who works on a Quick Response Team, a group that helps people within 72 hours of a reported overdose by assessing their needs, developing a personalized referral plan and providing transportation if necessary.
  • Someone from a harm reduction group, such as SOAR WV or Mountain State Harm Reduction. Those who work with people who have opioid addictions know what kind of help they need, and what things can possibly prevent opioid addiction.

The board still needs an executive director, and the state has hired a national firm to find candidates. Morrisey will appoint the executive director after consulting with the board, however the executive director can be unseated by a vote of three-fourths of the members.

Can that appointment help in the lack of diversity of the rest of the board? Probably not.


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Leann Ray
Leann Ray

Leann Ray is a lifelong West Virginian. Her work at the Daily Athenaeum and Charleston Gazette-Mail has won numerous awards. She is a graduate of West Virginia University.