The statistics are clear: Rural America is deeply impacted by the opioid crisis, especially farmers and farm workers. What’s not so easy is figuring out what to do about it, three national agricultural leaders said Sunday, though they all said the real onus is on local communities.
Almost 75 percent of farmers and farm workers have either taken an illegal dose of painkillers, are addicted, or know someone who is, according to a November study commissioned by the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the mortality rate of working-age adults in rural areas is skyrocketing due to overdoses.
The opioid crisis “is so deep and so personal. It cries out for us to get past the stigma,” NFU president Roger Johnson said during a panel discussion that kicked off the group’s national conference in Kansas City.
Anne Hazlett, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s assistant to the secretary for rural development, told the audience what’s struck her about the crisis is how it ripples through extended families.
“You see grandparents raising so many generations of children because one of their parents are struggling with this issue,” she said.
The Trump administration has named the opioid crisis in rural and urban areas as a priority, with agency leaders suggesting treatment programs could play a key role. Hazlett pointed to the possibilities of telemedicine to improve access to treatment.
She cited some USDA rural development programs that deal with jobs as another part of the solution, because “we see this issue as more than a health issue. It is a matter of prosperity in our small towns and rural places.”
But Trump has proposed cutting some rural development programs, which are part of the farm bill. Hazlett didn’t say whether the USDA is looking for more money for the programs elsewhere, saying after the panel that “Congress will make decisions about funding.”
Hazlett says state leaders are also focused on combating the opioid crisis. She is expected to travel Monday to Topeka, Kansas, where last week Gov. Jeff Colyer signed an executive order last week to create a task force to study drug abuse.
“In my own medical practice, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of substance abuse disorders.” Colyer, a doctor, said, according to the Kansas News Service. “I’ve had patients die. I’ve had patients see their lives ruined, and I’ve also seen them recover as well.”
The NFU and AFB have an initiative called “Farm Town Strong” to help farmers and rural residents talk about the opioid crisis. The organizations aren’t always on the same page, but AFB President Zippy Duvall says part of the reason they’re collaborating on this issue is because “agriculture still swings a big stick” in Washington, D.C.
On a personal level, Duvall says his wife has to take lots of medicine when her ovarian cancer recurs. Knowing how deep the opioid crisis is cutting into farming communities, he says he’s paying more attention to those bottles now.
“It just makes you more aware to pick that bottle up and see what the medicine is,” he said, encouraging others to do the same and try to destigmatize opioid use and addiction.
But Johnson, who says he’s been on opioids for years due to spine pain, cautioned that the solution isn’t cutting out opioid prescriptions entirely.
“It’s a really good medication, and it works really well for a lot of folks. … So we do want to be careful that we don’t overreact and say ‘OK doctors, you can’t prescribe this,’” he said, adding, “The balance is really important.”
Johnson suggested the first thing to do is to talk with local, county and state officials.
“Maybe just getting together and having a community dinner, lunch or breakfast or whatever,” he said. “Seems like as the years go on, we do less and less of that. We need to reverse that trend and do more and more of that. Communicating with one another.”
One thing that wasn’t mentioned during the panel was the idea of needle exchanges, which allow addicts who inject opioids and heroin to turn in dirty needles and walk away with clean ones. Though it doesn’t necessarily pull people out of addictions, it can keep outbreaks of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C at bay.
Hazlett noted during the panel that a 2015 hepatitis C outbreak in a rural town in southern Indiana was eased by a needle exchange — one that Vice President Mike Pence (then governor) approved. But when asked after the panel whether the federal government would consider a nationwide needle-exchange program, Hazlett echoed Johnson's suggestion, saying local officials know best.
“We see that really as a local level. Again, it’s a community response,” she said. “What’s most effective in that community is what those communities need to follow.”
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