The three men at the top of Virginia’s Democratic ticket this election cycle spent Wednesday morning in Loudoun County, championing their ideas for tackling the commonwealth’s top health concerns.
Party leaders who gathered at the Loudoun Government Center described the Democratic trio—Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Justin Fairfax—as the dream team for solving Virginians’ opioid epidemic and winning the votes to expand Medicaid.
“Who better than a pediatric neurologist, an experienced attorney general, and a former federal prosecutor,” state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33rd) said. “This is the team that can really address this moving forward.”
The races for Virginia’s top seats are among the most watched this election season. Election Day in the commonwealth is seen as a political litmus test for how Republicans will fair in moderate states in the wake of President Donald J. Trump’s divisive first year in office.
Northam is going up against Republican Ed Gillespie for the governorship. Herring, a Leesburg native, is being challenged by first-time candidate John Adams in his bid for re-election. And Justin Fairfax, a former federal prosecutor, faces state Sen. Jill Vogel (R-27) in the lieutenant governor’s race.
At the Wednesday morning forum, each candidate offered their solutions to the growing crisis of prescription drug and heroin addiction. They talked about a “360 solution” that includes arresting traffickers and dealers, but also provides prevention education and addiction treatment.
“We need lawmakers, students, families, parents, teachers, and law enforcement—everyone engaged in what is one of the critical health care and law enforcement problems of our time,” said Fairfax, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “It will take prevention, treatment, and law enforcement where appropriate.”
Herring agreed, adding, “We can’t solve this problem just with arrests.” While people who break the law to obtain prescription drugs should face consequences, treatment and rehabilitation needs to follow so they can re-enter the community successfully, he said.
Northam noted that the commonwealth has spent $30 million on mental health care in recent years, and a lot of those funds have been funneled toward helping people addicted to opioids.
But, he noted, that Virginia could be doing more if lawmakers agreed to expand Medicaid. As part of the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will match states’ investment if they agree to expand Medicaid to thousands more of their residents. Virginia Republicans have rejected the idea, saying it would cripple the state’s finances.
“Every day we don’t expand Medicaid, we’re not only leaving federal money on the table but we’re giving $6 million a day to other states,” Northam said. “Health care is a right, and now we have 400,000 working Virginians who don’t have access to care.”
The forum’s moderator Dr. Shereef Elnahal, assistant deputy under secretary for Health for Quality, Safety, and Value at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, asked local elected officials what Loudoun County is doing to address residents’ health care needs.
In response, county Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) offered the candidates a sure-fire way they can help Loudoun specifically fight the opioid crisis. He noted that Loudoun County desperately needs state funding for a fourth Circuit Court judge, a position the General Assembly defunded earlier this year. That’s made it even more difficult to keep up with the crowded docket and impossible to reinstate the county’s drug court. Drug court gave drug offenders a chance to avoid jail time after violating probation by going instead to a program of intense court supervision and treatment.
“If we get that fourth judge, we can hurry and set up that drug court, get them treatment and when they get released they can be functioning members of society,” Saines said.
Del. John Bell (R-87th), who is running for re-election, added another item to the lawmakers’ to-do list. He commended his colleagues in the General Assembly for passing 15 bills earlier this year that targeted prescription and heroin addiction.
“But I think we need to revisit those 15 bills. Find out what is working, what isn’t working,” Bell said. One improvement that can be made is providing an avenue for a person to go directly into treatment after being treated with NARCAN, a naloxone that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. “If someone does get the NARCAN shot, it sends them into withdrawal, but we don’t have anything to get them into treatment.”
Bell also talked about his 30-year-old son’s struggle with opioid addiction. After a car accident, he received a 90-day prescription for pain meds—plus five refills. “His addiction went on for seven years,” Bell said, adding that his son is in treatment today but still faces challenges. “This is not a political issue. This is our sons, our daughters, our fathers and mothers. Let’s work together on this.”
Before heading to Winchester for a campaign meet-and-greet, the candidates and their staff dropped into Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville. Co-owner and distiller Becky Harris gave the crowd a tour of the facility, which produces Virginia’s most awarded whiskey, Roundstone Rye.