In small towns from the heartland to the coasts, there is a growing threat to economic prosperity in rural America: the misuse of prescription pain medicine, otherwise known as opioids, and other addictive substances. Our nation is in the midst of a crisis. While no corner of the country has gone untouched by this epidemic, rural communities like Garden Plain, a farm town of just 890 people in south central Kansas, have been particularly hard hit.

In October of last year, President Donald J. Trump declared war on the opioid epidemic and directed an all-hands team to respond with every available resource. With that call to action, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue ensured the United States Department of Agriculture is on the front lines of this crisis as a committed partner to rural communities.

As we carry out our core mission of increasing rural prosperity, the opioid epidemic and the broader issue of substance misuse in rural America is more than a health issue; this is a matter of rural prosperity that threatens the economic fabric of small towns across our country.

Understanding that no two rural places are the same, we believe the solutions to this crisis lie at the local level. To help rural leaders build an effective local response, we are taking action on three fronts to address prevention, treatment and recovery. First, we are providing resources to build infrastructure; second, we are facilitating partnerships; and third, we are driving innovation in rural communities.

Through our telemedicine and community facilities programs, USDA is making critical investments in rural infrastructure to combat the opioid crisis. For example, so far in 2018 we have helped rural leaders in 68 communities access treatment, counseling services and prevention education through remote connections in 33 states. We provided grant assistance for facilities, vehicles and equipment to improve mental and behavioral health care access, and public safety for 85 communities in 22 states. In Washington County, Missouri, we partnered with the Great Mines Health Center to purchase essential equipment for an outpatient treatment clinic. We also used our loan programs to build healthcare and public safety facilities that will serve nearly 8 million rural Americans.

Beyond program investments, we developed a number of tools to equip local leaders with information about available resources and data to make fact-based decisions. We launched an opioid resources page on the USDA website to house information about our programs and provide news updates and links to the resources of our partners. In addition, we created an interactive map that enables viewers to learn about model prevention, treatment and recovery practices by state. USDA also developed a Community Assessment Tool to access opioid impact and socioeconomic data by county. This tool can help local leaders see some of the factors which may be driving the crisis in their communities.

With a focus on innovation and infrastructure, we are working closely with our partners at the federal, state and local level to leverage the impact of our resources. We are joining forces with federal partners at the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice and Transportation to tackle the unique needs of rural areas such as the lack of access to treatment, transition housing and transportation.

Beyond those targeted partnerships, we also worked with the Office of National Drug Control Policy to establish a rural interagency work group, which is coordinating existing federal resources for substance misuse in rural communities and identifying gaps for future action.

Outside of government, we are convening rural partners to break down silos and build new relationships. Each month, USDA hosts a partners meeting that provides a forum for rural stakeholders, like the Farm Bureau and National Rural Health Association, who are helping small towns share information and collaborate on solutions. Importantly, our focus on partnerships have extended well beyond Washington and into the front lines of the battle where our state directors, like Kansas director Lynne Hinrichsen, are coordinating with state agency leaders, local officials and rural interests on the ground to maximize the impact of USDA’s resources.

Finally, we are driving innovation through the identification of model practices. Since March, USDA has hosted or co-led rural roundtable discussions in 15 states, from Utah to Maine, to learn about the needs of rural communities and the kinds of effective actions local rural leaders are taking to fight the epidemic. In Ohio, for example, we learned about the “Got Your Back” prevention campaign led by several county Farm Bureau organizations, 4-H and FFA to educate local youth about the dangers of misusing prescription drugs.

To empower local leaders, we are sharing the information through our opioids webpage that’s been gleaned from these constructive roundtables. We are expanding our reach by compiling and making available a community action guide in the coming year.

At USDA, we believe in rural America and in the promise of small towns and the people who call them home. With a passion for our mission, we are committed to being a strong partner to local leaders to help defeat the opioid epidemic.

Together, we can build healthy and prosperous rural communities now, and for generations to come.

Anne Hazlett is USDA’s assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development.

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