Thursday, April 05, 2018

USDA hears concerns, ideas, at first opioid epidemic roundtable in Pennsylvania; next one will be in Utah

On March 14 in Harrisburg, Pa., representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture held the first in a series of roundtables to discuss the opioid epidemic. "The inaugural roundtable was convened in Pennsylvania by Anne Hazlett, the USDA’s assistant to the secretary for Rural Development and also brought to the table several local officials from rural counties in the state, including a first responder from Adams County, a commissioner from Bradford County, a judge from Lackawanna County and a coroner from York County," Hadi Sedigh and Arthur Scott report for County News, the publishing arm of nonprofit organization the National Association of Counties. "These county leaders were joined at the event by representatives from USDA, Pennsylvania state government, area universities, faith-based organizations, hospitals, recovery centers and law enforcement agencies." Here's some of what they talked about:

Kerry Benninghoff, majority policy chairman of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and former county coroner in Center County, shared key takeaways from the 10 hearings about the opioid epidemic that he's held throughout the state. Many people think the opioid crisis is someone else's problem, he said. He suggested that stakeholders remember that many who need addiction treatments don't ask for it, so there may be low demand for treatment in an area but a high need for it. Local governments may find that a major impediment to responding effectively to the opioid epidemic.

Shannon Monnat, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, talked about social and economic distress throughout the country that she said has caused hopelessness and despair, which has in turn been a main driver of the opioid epidemic. To defeat the epidemic, she said, leaders must address the despair. She also demonstrated with data that different rural areas have different reasons driving their opioid addiction rates. "According to her research, one predictor of how acutely a rural county is impacted by the opioid epidemic is the jurisdiction’s economic dependency type: counties in which mining is a major economic driver, for example, have significantly higher drug-related rates per 100,000 residents than farming communities," Sedigh and Scott report.

Local officials shared first-hand accounts of what the opioid crisis looks like in rural areas. One said her agency is wary of warning the public about lethal batches of illegal opioids because she fears some will seek those batches out on purpose for a better high. A first responder said his agency didn't have enough ambulances to deal with overdoses. And another person said that, while task forces are an important part of figuring out how to fight addiction, rural communities often have trouble funding them.

Speakers also shared ideas that are helping their communities fight addictions. "Judge Michael Barrasse from Lackawanna County stated that in rural areas in Pennsylvania, local governments are teaming up to create regional drug courts in place of often resource-prohibitive single-county courts," Sedigh and Scott report. "A representative of a faith-based organization funded by Lancaster County highlighted the pivotal role of churches — often among the only settings where rural communities congregate — in formulating an effective response to addiction in rural areas. Speakers also discussed tech solutions for helping recovering addicts, such as mobile apps.

Commissioner Ed Bustin, a member of the National Association of Counties' Rural Action Caucus and a member of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said the the response to the epidemic must focus on addiction and not any specific drug. If addiction isn't addressed, he said, then opioids will simply be replaced by a different drug in the next epidemic. To fight addiction, they had to "try and knit together communities again so they have the strength to prevent addiction from taking hold from the start," Sedigh and Scott report. That will require changes in how they look at schools, recreation, and faith-based communities, and federal funding that will allow local leaders to be creative.

The next opioid roundtable will be on April 11 at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, followed by one in Kentucky on May 9, one in Oklahoma on June 6, and one in Maine on July 11.

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