Rural America and the Opioid Epidemic: A Call for Partnership

Viewpoints / Focus on Agriculture January 24, 2018

Credit: Getty Images 

By Anne Hazlett

If the words OxyContin, fentanyl or addiction evoke images of homeless people on the streets in big cities, think again. In 2016, nearly 64,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, which is more than any other year in U.S. history. At 174 people each day, this is more than the number of lives lost in car accidents or gun-related homicides. While no corner of the country has gone untouched by this issue, the opioid epidemic has hit rural America particularly hard.

In October 2017, the Centers for Disease Control brought the impact of this crisis on rural communities to a new light with a report showing that deaths from drug overdoses in rural areas have now surpassed drug overdose death rates in urban areas. Similarly, a November 2017 report released by the Economic Research Service found that for the first time ever the overall rural population is declining due to rising mortality rates among working-age adults—mortality that is stemming in part from prescription drug and heroin abuse. And, finally, both of these findings are consistent with a recent survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union which showed that just under 50 percent of rural adults have been directly impacted by opioid abuse and over 74 percent of farmers have been directly impacted.

More than a health concern, the opioid crisis is an issue of rural prosperity and will take the commitment, collaboration and creativity of a wide range of partners to address.

The impact of this crisis on small towns and rural places is painfully visible. From eastern Colorado to southeast Ohio, the opioid epidemic has created lost productivity in jobs, increased health care demands, and put great stress on emergency response, law enforcement, judicial and school system resources. The opioid crisis has also put a significant strain on families where nearly 2.5 million children are being raised by grandparents or extended family because of this struggle in the home. Moreover, in some states, foster care caseloads are up over 50 percent due to one or both parents battling drug addiction. Finally, beyond community resources and family stability, the opioid epidemic is impacting quality of life and economic opportunity in rural America. For many rural counties already operating on slim budgets and struggling to attract new businesses or maintain existing employers, the consequences of this issue for rural communities are very real.

As rural leaders rally to respond to this growing challenge, an effective solution to addressing this issue will take leadership and collaboration from a broad range of partners at the federal, state and local level, including agriculture and rural advocates like AFBF. Under the leadership of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, USDA is keenly focused on facilitating prosperity in rural America. With a concern for quality of life and economic opportunity, USDA is partnering to strengthen local responses to the opioid epidemic in rural communities through a number of activities.

At a community level, USDA is investing in prevention, treatment, recovery and law enforcement capacity. In addition, Secretary Perdue has created a Rural Development Innovation Center. There, the Rural Development mission area now has a team devoted to working hand in hand with rural communities to address new and complex challenges facing rural America, such as the opioid epidemic. Led by a chief innovation officer and supported by the Rural Development state directors, the center is a focal point for best practices and strategic partnership development. With these resources, USDA is well-equipped to assist communities on the front lines in building innovative local solutions to address the opioid crisis.

Beyond USDA, Secretary Perdue has chaired an interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. At the 2018 AFBF Annual Convention & IDEAg Trade Show, earlier this month, the task force released a series of recommendations to help improve life in rural America, including a recommendation to modernize health care access. The task force found that improved access to mental and behavioral health care, particularly prevention, treatment and recovery resources, is vital to addressing the opioid crisis and other substance misuse in rural communities.

Just last week, I visited eastern Colorado where I had an opportunity to meet with Cathie S., a passionate member of the Colorado Farm Bureau who has jumped in to tackle this issue in her county. In her hometown, there is a bright hope for the future as she begins to collaborate with the CEO of her local hospital to address this growing challenge through telemedicine and community networks. As USDA moves forward to implement the Rural Prosperity Task Force recommendations, we will seek to meet communities where they are and be a strong partner to local leaders just like Cathie in building an effective response at that local level. No two towns are the same but each community has its own assets ready to be tapped.

The opioid epidemic is a pivotal challenge for many rural places. More than a health concern, the opioid crisis is an issue of rural prosperity and will take the commitment, collaboration and creativity of a wide range of partners to address. On the Farm Town Strong website, AFBF and NFU include a bold declaration which reads: “Farm towns will overcome this epidemic through strong farmer-to-farmer support and the resilience of our communities.” We could not agree more with this sentiment and stand ready to be a partner with rural America in this fight. 

Anne Hazlett is USDA Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development.

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