CHARLESTON — The House Health and Human Resources Committee on Thursday recommended passage of two bills, one of which would require private foundations to develop opioid settlement distribution plans to comply with open meetings laws, while the other would allow legislative oversight committees to close Doors meet to discuss child abuse cases. The committee recommended that the House pass House Bill 4595 and referred the bill to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The bill would allow the Health and Human Resources Accountability Legislative Oversight Committee to hold executive sessions to hear details of specific child protective services cases. The bill allows the committee to participate in executive session on a limited basis to oversee CPS investigations, review internal documents and hear testimony in confidential cases involving child abuse. The bill would require the commission to be notified within 30 days of cases involving the death or serious injury of minors or adults in state custody or direct care, or of cases submitted to the commission within six months, but personally identifiable information would be omitted. There have been many high-profile incidents over the years involving CPS, or lack of CPS involvement, resulting in the death of children, including a fire in Greenbrier County that resulted in the death of multiple children. In 2023, two incidents occurred in Kanawha County where suspected child abuse was reported to CPS, but CPS also did not follow up on the complaints. In one of the cases, a parent allegedly killed his child and his mother. The CPS has declined to speak extensively about the case, citing confidentiality.
“As court cases often do, they take a long time to work their way through the court system,” said House Health Committee Vice Chairman Nicholas Heather Talley, a Republican. “Our fatality and mortality review team is years behind on looking at these issues. You always get a lot of time from DHHR staff and some legal staff, but you get hindered quite honestly.”
The original bill allowed the committee greater power to go into executive session, but Thursday’s delete-and-insert amendments limit that power. House Health Committee Minority Chairman Mike Pushkin, a Kanawha Democrat, said he would reluctantly support the revised bill.
“I’m quite concerned about the introduction of this bill,” Pushkin said. “Some of these concerns have been addressed through strikes and interjections. I remain skeptical of regulations that would allow committees … to hold closed-door meetings.”
“That’s why we did Strike-In, because we thought of that,” said House Health Committee Chair Amy Summers (R-Taylor). “We don’t want it to be abused at all, so we want to narrow it down. Our goal is not to reduce transparency by having an executive session.”
HB 4595 also makes technical changes that would allow the committee to provide oversight of three divisions of the former Department of Health and Human Resources: Department of Health, Department of Human Services, and Department of Health Facilities. The bill creates a performance review process for three new departments. Another bill, House Bill 4274, further changes state code to remove references to the DHHR. Also recommended Thursday is passage of House Bill 4593, which would amend the charter of the West Virginia First Foundation to require it to comply with the state open meetings law and the Freedom of Information Act. The private foundation, created under a memorandum of understanding between the attorney general’s office and city/county governments involved in litigation between major opioid manufacturers and distributors, was codified in the state code last year. The 11-member foundation will receive 72.5% of the nearly $1 billion to be allocated to a variety of programs, drug abuse avoidance, research and education; funding for law enforcement agencies that combat drug sales and distribution; and pharmaceuticals Abuse treatment and recovery. So far, the foundation’s meetings have been open to the public and media, but members have participated in executive sessions during the meetings. The foundation has been developing open meeting and transparency policies, but Pushkin said it was important for the Legislature to make it clear that these foundation meetings should be open to everyone.
“We’re talking about a lot of money,” Pushkin said. “This is often called a windfall. It’s not. The state got this money because a lot of people lost their lives. How it’s spent and what it’s spent on is very important, and that’s why this bill is so important.”
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at [email protected].