Drug overdose deaths exhaust state indigent funeral funds

West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate continues to increase. It is the highest rate in the country and nearly three times the national average. That shocking statistic is causing a state program that helps families bury their loved ones to run out of funds.

"To lose someone so sudden like that and not expecting at all its really traumatic,” recovering addict Kelli Barker said.

Losing a loved one to drugs is something you can't prepare for.

Barker and Kelsey Waybright are both recovering from addiction at Recovery Point in Charleston. Barker lost her son’s father three years ago to an overdose.

“Our son was six when it happened. It was really hard going through it myself and watching my son have to deal with that and how hard it was on him and his family. It’s something i deal with everyday still,” Barker said.

Waybright's also knows the pain of losing someone battling a drug addiction. Her sister took her own life after struggling with addiction. On top of shock of losing a loved one, families have to worry about planning a funeral.

"It was a few days before her 26th birthday. She has two kids. We just weren't expecting it at all,” Waybright said.

Here in the sate, it’s now more difficult for families that can't afford a funeral.

There have been so many drug-related deaths; the state's indigent burial program can't keep up.

The Department of Health and Human Resources said funds have run out early for the last five years. This year was the earliest yet, February 28, and more won't be available until July 1.

The DHHR said the indigent funeral program budget is about $2 million and covers $1,250 to help cover funeral expenses for families who can't afford them. The family matches the amount up to about $1,200.

West Virginia Funeral Directors Association Executive Director Rob Kimes believes the drug abuse and overdose problem in the state is to blame.

"This addiction problem and death by overdose has definitely added to that because people overdosing seem to been in the majority socio economic area of 18, 25 and financially usually aren’t sound and haven’t thought about preplanning their death,” Kimes said.

West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate is the highest in the country, and it only continues to increase.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate in 2015 was 41.5 cases per 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the country.

"People are dying every day. The stuff that’s out there you never know what’s in it and I have fear for a lot of people. There’s been people that’s left here and went back out and it’s like when you see them walk out that door you know they are going to end up dead. With the disease of addiction it’s the only way out,” Barker said.

These funds not being available is an added stress for families who have already gone through so much.

“You're trying to find peace in losing your loved one and inside your having to worry about financial stuff and that’s really not what you want to have on your mind,” Waybright said.

"I feel like everybody should be able to have the right to a proper funeral and wake and just to honor their memory because these are our loved ones. People we cherish we want to have that memory of them that’s going to be the last memory of them ever,” Barker said.

With the state budget deficit, many hope there’s a way to curb the addiction problem and hopefully more people can find help, like Barker and Waybright did.

The DHHR said there is no way the department is able to track the number of indigent burial requests that were related to drug overdoses or if it played a role in the program running out of money.

More funds will be available when the new fiscal year begins on July 1. The legislature will determine the program's budget for the next fiscal year.

Overdose death rates in the state increased in 2016. West Virginia Health Statistics Center’s latest data from 2014-2016 completed on February 13, 2017 show the growing number of overdoses in the state:

2012 - All substances: 558; All opiate related 472

2013- All substances: 585; All opiate related 494

2014- All substances: 629; All opiate related 554

2015- All substances: 731; All opiate related 639

2016- All substances 818; All opiate related 703

**The second column (all opiate related) shows the numbers that involved at least one opioid.

These numbers could increase as more toxicology results are reported and recorded.

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