WASHINGTON, Sept. 19, 2016, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced new USDA initiatives to strengthen outreach and education resources at the local level to combat the rural opioid epidemic, including an expanded series of state-led opioid awareness events and increased access to information in USDA local offices. The effort begins on Monday, Sept. 19, coinciding with President Obama’s designated Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week from Sept. 18 – 23.
Opioid addiction, including heroin and prescription drug misuse, is a fast-growing problem that played a role in more than 28,000 deaths in 2014. The opioid crisis disproportionately affects rural communities in part due to the lack of outreach and treatment resources available in remote areas. In January, President Obama tapped Vilsack to lead an interagency initiative focused on curbing rural opioid misuse. Over the past nine months, Vilsack has visited regions of the country that have been hit hard by opioid addiction to host a series of White House Rural Council Townhalls to hear from local leaders fighting the epidemic on the ground and discuss possible solutions.
“Over the past few months, I’ve seen firsthand the devastation that opioid addiction is causing in communities across the country. After hearing from mothers and fathers who’ve lost their children to opioid misuse, and listening to mayors and medical personnel appeal for greater treatment resources, it’s clear that rural communities need our help.” said Vilsack. “In order to better serve our communities, I’ve directed USDA’s local teams to step up as leaders and expand our resources and programs to battle the opioid epidemic.”
To continue the important conversations happening in rural communities devastated by the opioid crisis, leaders from USDA’s Farm Service Agency and Rural Development offices in key affected states will host opioid awareness events to bring together government officials, medical professionals, law enforcement, and other stakeholders to raise awareness of the issue, forge partnerships, identify possible solutions and highlight the need for more treatment resources in rural communities. The series will kick off with these four events in September with more to follow in the coming months:
- September 19 : Tolland, Connecticut
- September 20: Brighton, Colorado
- September 26: Grants Pass, Oregon
- September 29: Fayetteville, NC
Vilsack also announced that USDA will display information about addiction resources from the Centers for Disease Control in all of its local offices. USDA’s Farm Service Agency, Rural Development and Natural Resources Conservation Services offices serve millions of Americans across the country each year and for many people in rural communities this may be the only face-to-face interaction they have with the federal government. USDA’s offices can play an important role in raising awareness about the issue and helping people connect with resources. 44 percent of Americans recently said they or someone they know has been addicted to prescription pain medicine.
USDA has taken a number of steps to use its resources to help battle the opioid epidemic. In March, Secretary Vilsack announced that the Rural Health and Safety Education grant program could be used for communities to conduct drug addiction awareness efforts. USDA’s Distance Learning and Telehealth Medicine Grants have been used to help hospitals in rural communities use telemedicine to better treat individuals struggling with addiction and the Community Facilities Grants and Loans Program has allowed communities to build treatment and recovery facilities. In August, the Secretary announced that USDA was leveraging its rural housing programs to provide more housing for individuals in recovery. More information on the opioid epidemic and USDA’s response can be found at www.usda.gov/opioids.
The President has proposed $1.1 billion in new funding to support states in expanding treatment options. Recently, Congress passed legislation aimed at addressing the crisis; however did not provide any funding that would expand resources.