Op-Ed: Opioid Scourge no Laughing Matter in Appalachia

By Representative Derek Lewis

Opioid Money

As coal declined and hopelessness took its place, Appalachia became the perfect target for pill-peddling profiteers

“Emails to and from an AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. executive presented Thursday at Huntington and Cabell County’s trial against opioid distributors revealed jokes, flippant remarks and mockery of Appalachians that continued within the company for years. The emails contained parody songs that used words like “pillbillies” and “Oxycotinville” to describe West Virginians.”

-The Herald Dispatch, May 13, 2021

When I read these words in a West Virginia newspaper, I was furious. Honestly, you should be furious too. While it has evolved into a point of pride for many, the term “hillbillies” began as an insult. For someone allegedly engaged in many of the unethical practices that led to the Appalachian opioid epidemic to hijack that slur and morph it into “pillbillies” is a further slap in the face. The article even references emails that describe the motivation behind regulatory legislation passed by the Kentucky General Assembly as the result of one of the “hillbillies” discovering how to read.

As a native Eastern Kentuckian, I can tell you that the people of this region are hardworking, proud, and good. For generations they have built lives and livelihoods in the hills and hollers. They work below ground mining coal and above ground doing whatever it takes to provide for their families. However, as coal declined and hopelessness took its place, this region became the perfect target for pill-peddling profiteers.

As an owner of pharmacies, I see firsthand the catastrophic impact of our opioid crisis. I use the word “our” to help you understand that this is absolutely the greatest crisis of our time. While this state approaches the last phases of fully reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic, the deaths, health effects, and economic impact of the opioid epidemic will shatter the COVID numbers. Long after this pandemic is over, we will not only face the results of months-long isolation, but also an exponential growth in the prescription drug dependencies we saw before COVID-19. In fact, the mental health fallout of the shutdowns so many of us faced has only exacerbated Kentucky’s opioid dependency.

Numerous times I have been asked what a pharmacy owner can do to help. Just like in any other profession, there are good actors and bad actors. I would like to think that I am one of the good ones. I would hope that my customers would tell you the same thing. Pharmacists can offer services such as counseling on opioid risks, naloxone dispensing, education on opioid storage and disposal, prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) utilization, opioid deprescribing, and providing resources for addiction treatment to help mitigate the opioid crisis. 

What does not help is making light of the situation. As employees of AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. laughed, Appalachia cried. As drug manufacturers profited, Kentucky and surrounding states suffered. We continue to suffer. The profiteers of AmerisourceBergen have never had to see the faces of the targets of their ill-conceived jokes. Employees in their lavish corner offices used childish puns and spoofs while grandparents were struggling on a fixed income raising their grandchildren.

When the employees of multimillion dollar companies make fun of the very people they are destroying, they are making light of the real people of Appalachia that are continuing to hurt to this day. How dare they? I have seen with my very eyes the faces of children that have had both parents in rehabilitation facilities. I have seen the eyes of parents who were too late in getting their children into rehabilitation facilities. Have you ever seen a parent that has outlived their child? I have. It is nothing to laugh at; it is nothing to mock.

Derek Lewis 148

I pray that God will have mercy on those that would seek to use these disrespectful terms in reference to the Appalachian opioid epidemic. May God bless those that continue to suffer from the scourge of our lifetime.           

Rep. Derek Lewis of London represents the state’s 90th House District, which includes all of Clay and Leslie Counties and a portion of Laurel County. Lewis is Vice Chair of the House Standing Committee on Banking and Insurance and also serves on the House Standing Committees on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs; Transportation; and Judiciary.

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