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At Bernie Sanders’ West Virginia town hall, America’s opioid crisis goes on dark display

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The epidemic of opioid addiction continues to plague the nation, with the number of people killed by overdose in the United States quadrupling since 2000 — an average of 91 opioid-related deaths each day.

The crisis was on display during an MSNBC town hall with Bernie Sanders in West Virginia televised on Monday night, when host Chris Hayes asked those in the audience who had lost loved ones to opioids to raise their hands.

Nearly half of the room did.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 725 people died from opioid overdoses in West Virginia in 2015, a rate of 41.5 per 100,000 — the highest in the country.

Opioids — including prescription drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone, as well as heroin — killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, more than any year on record, according to CDC data, and almost as many as died in car crashes. And nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid.

Sanders argued that the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare would result in even more.

“I happen to believe that health care is a right, and we should move to Medicare for all,” Sanders said. “If Obamacare is repealed, we are looking at hundreds of thousands of people who got Medicaid losing that. How many of those folks will die? How many will lose the opioid treatment they’ve now got?”

A show of hands, and a reminder of the humanA show of hands, and a reminder of the human toll of opioid addiction. (MSNBC) toll. (MSNBC)
A show of hands and a reminder of the human toll of opioid addiction. (MSNBC)

Turning to another issue — mining jobs — Sanders said that unlike President Trump he believes climate change is real. But he doesn’t hold individual coal miners responsible for it.

“These guys are heroes,” Sanders said. “I remember. I grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. And I will never forget the piles of coal — I don’t know if it came from here, or wherever it came from. It kept my house warm. So thank you. You are not my enemy.”

The town hall took place in McDowell County, in the state’s so-called coal country. The Vermont senator called for creating more renewable energy jobs to help mitigate global warming while putting former coal miners back to work.

“We are the richest country in the world,” Sanders said. “We can do this.”

He also criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents part of coal country in Kentucky, for putting the interests of coal company executives ahead of their workers.

“If you think of all the miners who have suffered and died from black lung disease,” Sanders said, “I would say as a nation we owe these folks a great deal.”

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