‘This is a matter of rural prosperity’: USDA plans Utah discussion on opioid epidemic in small communities

(AP file photo) A pharmacy technician in Oklahoma with hydrocodone and acetaminophen tablets, also known as Vicodin. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a series of community meetings to discuss opioid addition in rural areas, including an April 11 event at the Utah Capitol. Anne Hazlett, assistant secretary for rural development at USDA, said the meetings are part of a new push by the agency to address the deadly crisis, which, Hazlett said, “has hit rural America particularly hard.”

Utah is one of five states where the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to hold roundtable discussions focused on how the opioid epidemic is damaging rural communities.

Utah’s roundtable is scheduled for April 11 at the Utah Capitol.

The meetings are part of a new push by the agency to address the deadly crisis, which “has hit rural America particularly hard,” said Anne Hazlett, assistant secretary for rural development at USDA.

“We believe that this issue of addiction in rural communities is more than a health issue — this is a matter of rural prosperity,” she said in a conference call with reporters.

Other USDA roundtables are scheduled in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Maine in the coming months.

USDA officials want to better understand regional needs to address the problem and learn about successful prevention strategies being pursued at the local level that might be replicated elsewhere, Hazlett said.

Hazlett said opioid addiction is hurting worker productivity, burdening the resources of rural hospitals and straining the workloads of emergency responders and police agencies.

“This issue is also making economic development even more difficult for rural communities already operating on slim budgets and struggling to attract new businesses,” she said.

Some 635 Utahns died of drug overdoses in 2016, with more than 400 of those related to opioids. The state had the 19th-highest drug overdose rate that year, the most recent year for which complete data are available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hazlett and other officials will attend the discussions with community leaders and experts in addiction and recovery.

The agency recently launched a website outlining USDA resources available for communities seeking help with opioids.

These include a program of federal grants to rehabilitate community facilities such as hospitals and mental health clinics, as well as financial help to boost rural telemedicine and addiction prevention programs.