USDA ramps up battle against rural opioid abuse

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 19, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announcednew USDA initiativesto counter an epidemic of opioid and heroin abuse that has killed thousands of Americans, with a disproportionate impact on rural communities.

The initiatives, aimed at strengthening outreach and education resources at the local level, were announced as President Obama proclaimed this week Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epicdemic Awareness week. Some 44 percent of Americans recently said they or someone they know has been addicted to prescription pain medicine, USDA said in a release.

"Over the past few months, I've seen firsthand the devastation that opioid addiction is causing in communities across the country,” Vilsack said. “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. 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."

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USDA noted that 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 crisis disproportionately affects rural communities, in part due to the lack of outreach and treatment resources available in remote areas. In January, 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 Town Hall meetings to hear from local leaders fighting the epidemic on the ground and discuss possible solutions.

"I've seen firsthand the devastation that opioid addiction is causing in communities across the country,” Vilsack said. “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. 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."

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Vilsack directed USDA's Farm Service Agency and Rural Development offices in key affected states to host opioid awareness events, bringing 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 four events this month - today in Tolland, Connecticut; in Brighton, Colorado, Sept. 20; in Grants Pass, Oregon, Sept. 26; and in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Sept. 29 - with more to follow in the coming months.

Vilsack also announced that USDA will display information about addiction resources from the Centers for Disease Control in all of its local offices. The department pointed out that the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development and Natural Resources Conservation Service offices serve millions 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, the department said.

The Agriculture Department has already taken a number of steps to use its resources to help battle the opioid epidemic. In March, 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. And 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 by clicking here.

The president has also proposed $1.1 billion in new funding to support states in expanding treatment options. Recently, Congress passed legislation aimed at addressing the crisis. However, USDA notes, lawmakers did not provide any funding that would expand resources.

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