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US Health Secretary Tom Price talks about opioids in West Virginia

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March, 17, 2017, as House Republicans push for unity in advancing the GOP's "Obamacare" replacement bill.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March, 17, 2017, as House Republicans push for unity in advancing the GOP's "Obamacare" replacement bill.(WHSV)
Published: May. 9, 2017 at 2:39 PM EDT
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U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price came to West Virginia on Tuesday to hear about efforts to fight opioid addiction in a state that has the nation's highest drug overdose death rate.

Price visited the state Capitol in Charleston along with senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway. They met privately with state and local policymakers and members of several groups, including officials of an addiction treatment center and an addiction hotline.

West Virginia already had the nation's

by far, with 41.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015. And state Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said the number of overdose deaths rose nearly 18 percent last year to 864 people.

"We are losing a generation of West Virginians to drug abuse," Crouch said. "And in some cases, when it comes to an addicted mother with her newborn baby, I'm worried we're losing two generations."

West Virginia's fight against opioid abuse includes recent legislative approval for a new state Office of Drug Control Policy to coordinate statewide funding, reporting and data about drug use, overdoses, addiction treatment, needs and statewide policy.

Another new law authorizes spending $24 million from recent court settlements with opioid distributors to increase inpatient treatment beds, authorizing health officials to ensure they are available in the highest priority areas.

Price started his national tour on opioid addiction last month in Wilmington, Ohio. He spoke earlier Tuesday in Lansing, Michigan.

Price deflected concerns from Crouch and others that tens of thousands of West Virginians, including 50,000 drug addicts, are at risk of losing their expanded Medicaid coverage under the federal health care overhaul being considered in Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has asked a working group of Republican senators to craft a health care bill. Last week, Republicans pushed a version of the legislation through the House.

Outside a room where Price spoke, about 10 demonstrators concerned about their health coverage sought to talk to Price but were denied the chance. Gov. Jim Justice, a Democrat, did not attend the news conference.

Price was asked about a Trump administration proposal that would slash funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the lead White House office shaping policy on the nation's opioid crisis, by 94 percent. Price said the federal government as a whole is committed to providing more funding for the opioid crisis through several agencies, including the departments of Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs and Education.

"We are increasing the resources to solve this challenge," Price said. "That's the president's commitment."

Crouch said West Virginia officials have "serious concerns" that drug addicts in the state will lose their expanded Medicaid coverage and have no access to treatment.

Price responded that the Trump administration wants to make certain "that nobody falls through the cracks in the health care system."

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to speak on the nation's opioid epidemic on Thursday at the University of Charleston.

While Virginia's overdose death rate is lower, at 12.4 per 100,000 the opioid epidemic has been

in the Commonwealth.

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