USDA Rural Development finds itself in a leadership role as the nation comes to grips with the growing opioid crisis. Calling it a “National Emergency”, President Donald Trump has pledged more support and flexibility as the states deal with the epidemic. In 2016, more than 63,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, more than half are attributed to opiates, including prescription drugs. Life expectancy in the U.S. for both men and women fell for the second year in a row (2015-16), attributed to drug related deaths. This number had not witnessed a consecutive two-year drop since 1962-63, which was attributed to the influenza epidemic.
Anne Hazlett, Assistant to USDA Secretary Perdue for Rural Development recently unveiled a new USDA webpage (www.usda.gov/topics/opioids) featuring resources to help rural communities respond to the opioid crisis.
“While no corner of the country has gone untouched by the opioid crisis, small towns and rural places have been particularly hard hit,” Hazlett said. “The challenge of opioid misuse is an issue of rural prosperity and will take all-hands-on deck to address. The webpage will help rural leaders build a response that is tailored to meet the needs their community.”
In conjunction with unveiling the webpage, Hazlett announced a series of five roundtables to be held around the country in Pennsylvania, Utah, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Maine over the next five months. The Utah roundtable - “Opioid Misuse in Rural America: Community Impact and Response” - was held last April at the Utah State Capitol.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, a passionate leader in the fight against opioid abuse, announced a partnership targeting help for rural Utah.
“I’ve established a rural opioid working group co-chaired by Randy Parker, State Rural Development Director and Mark Whitney, past Chair of the Utah Association of Counties to work closely with my office and with DEA Agent-in-Charge Besser. Together we will provide resources and greater focus to this issue and its impact on our rural citizens.”
“We’re dying” was the message USDA and the White House Acting Director of the Office of National Drug Control Jim Carroll heard from an expert panel and audience members that packed the Capitol Board Room. Dale Covington, a person in recovery, shared his harrowing story of addiction and recovery that came to a head when his wife saved is life after an overdose, with four young sons watching. Mr. Covington’s remarks provided a sobering start to a day looking for answers and hope.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Utah ranks high among the states with a death rate of 22.35 per 100,000 persons due to drug overdose. From 2013-2015, Utah ranked seventh in the nation for drug overdose deaths. Rural counties like Carbon, Emery, and Beaver - are identified as highly vulnerable with deaths due to overdose as much as double the already high state numbers. In 2016, Utah lost 635 people to drug overdose deaths, or more than 12 of our neighbors, friends, fathers, mothers, brothers and/or sisters each week.
Joining Ms. Hazlett in the roundtable discussion were Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent-in-Charge Brian Besser, along with community, business, faith, veterans and healthcare experts, and Farm Bureau leaders. The roundtable focused on far-reaching issues including law enforcement, recovery, partnerships, and addressing the varied and individual needs of rural Utahns.
Several of the panelists had ties to Carbon County, which ranks first among Utah counties in recent years from opioid deaths, doubling the state number. Debbie Marvidikis of the Southeast Utah Health Department pointed out the county is desperately in need of resources to help with addiction and suicide.
Sanpete County farmer Richard Dyreng shared the story of his family’s tragic loss of their daughter Cami. Only 39 years old and the mother of three small boys, Cami had suffered with addiction since she was a teenager. Dyreng told the state and national leaders, “in addition to addiction, we need to address the issue of mental health with many, like my daughter.”
USDA Rural Development is giving funding priority to two key program areas to address opioid misuse in rural communities. This focused investment will provide resources and leverage partnerships to build an effective local response to this significant challenge. USDA is reserving $5 million in the Community Facilities Grant Program and is giving priority to Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant (DLT) Program applications proposing innovative projects to address the opioid epidemic in rural communities.
Investing in the work to combat opioid addiction and the devastating effects it has on rural America is desperately needed. USDA has taken a particular interest in this issue and its impact on rural prosperity. We encourage our rural communities and leaders to consider applying and visit the Utah Rural Development website for more information on our housing, business and community programs at www.rd.usda.gov/ut.
Editor's Note: Additional resources about the involvement of the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union on opioid abuse can be found at www.farmtownstrong.org