WASHINGTON, Oct. 25, 2017 – President Trump is expected to announce today his long-awaited declaration that the opioid epidemic is a national health emergency, and Anne Hazlett says USDA is prepared to follow any further orders the president issues to deal with the crisis.

Hazlett, who oversees USDA’s Rural Development agencies and is the department’s point person in dealing with the crisis, says USDA has been actively involved for years in fighting the epidemic, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says now claims 91 American lives every day.

“We have the staff and resources to address these challenges and stand ready to meet communities where they are and work toward a brighter future,” Hazlett told Agri-Pulse in an interview.

Since 2014, for example, the department’s Community Facilities Program has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in loans for mental health facilities in rural areas, which too often lack the resources available in urban communities. One of those loans, for $3.8 million, went to renovate and expand Royal Oaks Hospital in Windsor, Missouri, allowing the 41-bed psychiatric facility to add 14 beds.

Another effective initiative, Hazlett said, has been the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program, which has provided more than $213 million since 2009 for 634 projects in rural areas nationwide, many providing mental health treatment. The program funds projects that allow rural clinics to connect remotely with larger facilities and much needed specialist services.

Both programs rely on funding through Congress, which is just now beginning debate on the next farm bill, noted Hazlett, a former chief counsel for the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Currently, said Hazlett, USDA is developing a Rural Development Innovation Center, which will focus on how individual communities with individual needs can deal with “new and daunting issues” like the opioid crisis.

“The focus has been on how we can assist communities develop best practices and tools they can use to move forward,” said Hazlett. “No two communities are the same, their assets are not the same. We are focusing on how we can help on the local level.”

The effort is a continuation of work by former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was charged with leading the Obama administration's fight against opioid addiction. 

Hazlett acknowledges that reversing the opioid epidemic, which has been especially destructive in rural America, will be an enormous challenge. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, last year, an estimated 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, with more than half of those deaths involving opioids, including prescription drugs and heroin. And the rates of overdose deaths continue to rise in rural America.

“This issue can seem very overwhelming and dark at times,” said Hazlett, “especially if you actually see it on the ground.” Still, she said, she’s been able to meet “grassroots leaders who are using the issue as a broader catalyst for change,” taking on drug abuse and other problems such as intergenerational poverty, and paucity of educational facilities.

“There are stories of hope out there,” she said, “when you step back and look.”


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