USDA to Hold Opioid Roundtable in Maine

By Lura Jackson

 

The USDA is the latest federal agency that is joining in on the effort to combat the opioid crisis across the nation, something it feels it is equipped to address based on its experience with rural communities. On Wednesday, March 7, Anne Hazlett, Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development, held a press call with journalists from five states – including Maine – that will be the initial focus of a series of roundtables with a goal of developing a “community toolkit” of best practices. 

The initiative took shape after USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue coordinated an interagency taskforce on agriculture and rural prosperity, a group that ultimately brought together 20 federal agencies to look at several challenges facing rural America. Mental and behavioral health – in particular substance abuse – was recognized as a critical point to address, prompting the agency to outline a plan of action. 

One of the agency’s initial steps was to launch a page on its website specifically addressing the opioid epidemic. The page, viewable at www.usda.gov/topics/opioids, officially went live in late February.

Aside from the launch of the website and focusing on investments that address the crises, the USDA recognized that it would need to work with people and organizations at various levels to be fully effective. “We see a huge opportunity for partnership at federal, state, and local levels on this issue, both in the government and nonprofit sector,” Hazlett said during the press call. Accordingly, a team has been assembled to hold a series of roundtables – in Pennsylvania, Utah, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Maine – that would produce a sharable community toolkit. Maine will be the last state to have a roundtable with it scheduled on July 11 at an as-yet unknown location.

“Each event will cover challenges associated with substance use disorder in rural communities, strategies for prevention and treatment or recovery, and then, importantly, to look at those measures that are working to see how they can be implemented to effectively address challenges in other rural communities,” Hazlett said.

Hazlett was questioned if any action would come from the roundtables, with reporters noting that many roundtables of various kinds have been held in each state, including Maine. “We need the information to best inform the resources we are assembling,” Hazlett said. “We are approaching this in a manner of action, but we need information to inform that action.”

While there are similarities between the rural communities that have been affected by the opioid epidemic – which, notably, few if any remain unscathed – Hazlett recognized that what works in one area may not work in another, and that there is no single solution to the problem. “There is no silver bullet, instead there is silver buckshot,” Hazlett said, using a line borrowed from a friend of hers in Maine.

Speaking on the USDA’s available resources and funding, Hazlett said that the Farm Bill announced for 2018 would be directing some of its funding specifically for opioid treatment and prevention. Some of the initiatives are indirectly related, such as increasing broadband access. Hazlett said that for rural communities, telemedicine has notable potential in providing certain treatment. 

Asked if the federal government has taken a stance on the opioid-related lawsuits targeting manufacturers – of which Calais is now involved – Hazlett replied: “I think you will see the Department of Justice become very active in this effort.”

In closing, Hazlett provided what she sees as a “silver lining” to the opioid crisis. “As daunting as the opioid crisis can be, it really has the power to be transformative, to serve as a catalyst to bring people together and to enable a community to have conversations about difficult but core issues that are underlying this epidemic – issues like a lack of connection and a declining quality of life that are really key to future prosperity in rural America regardless of the drugs.”

Hazlett referred specifically to a community in Indiana where the nearest grocery store is six miles away. A group of high school students have created a project to attract a grocery store, an effort that may or may not be successful – but which highlights an important point. “What was a tragedy really has become a transformative conversation in that county, one that we will see raises up that next generation of leaders that will restore hope and prosperity to a very special place,” Hazlett said. “In that, I find great hope and I find encouragement in working alongside communities to tackle this issue.”