CHARLESTON, W.V. – Drug overdose deaths in West Virginia are overwhelming the state’s funeral directors and funeral funds.
A state program that provides burial assistance to those without financial resources has dried up. Vertava Health spoke with Robert Klimes, Executive Director of the West Virginia Funeral Homes Association, who says the Indigent Funeral Fund, normally awarded $2.2 million a year, was depleted February 28.
“From what I understand, for several years it had been coming up short with the escalating death rate,” says Klimes. “People who suffer from addiction are usually in a younger socioeconomic class and not thinking about planning their funeral.”
Klimes says many parents put up their 401k’s to help pay for rehab or in extreme instances the parents have been stolen from or had to take out a second mortgage. The issue has also slowed the pace of the state’s Chief Medical Examiner’s Office and caused a prolonged turnaround time for death certificates, autopsies and other examinations. Unattended deaths under the age of 50 typically call for an autopsy.
This comes at a time when West Virginia is half a billion dollars in the red. There used to be a large severance in the coal mine tax, and lawmakers are looking at ways to deplete the deficit. The state shows no signs of increasing the funds. Klimes believes that while there is a pressing need to help the families, there is a better place to put the money.
“We should invest the money in education and treatment programs to prevent further deaths,” says Klimes.
Even with the fund, funeral directors are exhausting their resources to help the families, many of them providing caskets and vaults which are only going up in value. The funeral fund only provided $1,250 to families after a vetting process and the average funeral costs around $7,000. The funeral homes are not making any profit, and many of them do everything they can to help the families of the deceased.
West Virginia ranks #1 in the United States for the number of overdose deaths per population. One funeral director says they processed two murders and four overdoses just in the past two weeks. Huntington, West Virginia is the state’s biggest hot spot for overdoses.
Even worse are the hurdles in donating to help the families. The fundraising is usually for each individual family and on a case by case basis. Many start GoFundMe accounts, and it is left to the donor to determine the legitimacy of the account. And while some families are beginning to speak out, the majority are not.
“There is still the stigma surrounding the whole event,” says Kimes. “Most are still your standard obituaries.”
In 2015, West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate stood at 41.5 cases per 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the country and nearly three times the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overdoses claim more than three out of every 100 fatalities in West Virginia and seem to affect one demographic more. 8% of all fatalities among white men age 35-64 and 28% of deaths among white males 15-34. Just last year in Huntington, a city with a population of 49,000, authorities responded to 26 heroin overdoses during a 4-hour span.
Between 2007-2012 over 780 million doses of the opiate painkillers hydrocodone and oxycodone were shipped to the state. That’s around 433 pain pills for every man, woman, and child in West Virginia. 1,700 people in the state were killed during that time period by those two drugs alone.
Attorneys in West Virginia filed lawsuits in federal court Thursday on behalf of two counties targeting the nation’s largest drug distribution companies. Attorneys in other hard-hit states are considering similar suits against the companies. The suits seek billions of dollars in reimbursements for the devastation the drugs have caused in communities across the United States.