RIVERTON — When it comes to addressing opioid abuse and overdose in Utah, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would seem an unlikely partner in the fight.
Ditto for the Utah Farm Bureau.
But as a growing body of federal health data points to the high vulnerability of three rural counties in Utah — Carbon, Emery and Beaver — for high rates of opioid abuse and overdose deaths, both entities believe they can play a role in guiding rural residents and agencies to help.
When most people hear the acronym USDA, they think of agriculture regulation, food safety and school lunch programs.
But one of its less understood roles is to help rural America thrive, said Randy Parker, state director for USDA Rural Development.
"When the president declared this as a national emergency, we're finding that rural America is the hardest hit today. USDA and the Rural Development Agency have the closest ties to those communities, can do the most outreach and can deliver the most resources to help," said Parker.
Specifically, federal grants are available for facilities and technology to facilitate telemedicine for the "primary purpose of providing opioid prevention, treatment or recovery services," according to a USDA press release. The deadline for applying for the grants is June 4, Parker said.
The Utah Farm Bureau hopes its long history of advocacy and education to 18,000 farmers and ranchers and affiliated businesses will facilitate difficult conversations about injury prevention, appropriate use and disposal of opioid prescriptions and getting help to address addiction or prevent or reverse overdose.
"These Utah farmers and ranchers are an independent bunch of people" who purposely live off the beaten path, said Sterling Brown, the Utah Farm Bureau's vice president of public policy.
"How do you break that barrier and get these rural folks, farmers and ranchers, these private people who purposely live a long ways away, to talk openly about these sensitive, important, life-changing topics? To the degree Farm Bureau can be in the position to carry a message and tear down walls, particularly in rural Utah, I think that's our place at the table," Brown said.
Parker and Brown were among a dozen people who took part in a round-table discussion Monday at the Jordan Academy for Technology and Careers on the impacts of opiate misuse, roadblocks to treatment and available resources.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes told participants that after months of attempting to negotiate a settlement with pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, the state of Utah, within a matter of days, will file a lawsuit against one major pharmaceutical manufacturer over the proliferation of addictive prescription painkillers that claim the lives of more than two dozen Utahns monthly.
"The end game is to change their conduct. Whether it's due to a lawsuit and a judgement by a court, or whether it's a settlement that's ultimately negotiated, the end game is to make sure that behavior changes and they can't continue — they being manufacturers and distributors — to do what they have been doing for the past decades," Reyes said in an interview with reporters.
"There's also an element of compensation. We know that there is no amount of money that is worth someone's life, that will ever replace a loved one. But there are a lot of people who need treatment today. There's a lot of resources that the state, the counties and the cities could use right now."
Scott Whittle, medical director of SelectHealth, Intermountain Healthcare's insurance division, said two key components in addressing rates of opioid abuse and overdose are caregivers strictly limiting the numbers of opiate-based pills prescribed to patients, as well as insurance companies limiting how much they will pay for the prescriptions.
Both are happening, which is "going to bend the curve alone," he said.
"The real help is to have the people of Utah not have access to the first opiate," Whittle said.
Others on the panel said families and individuals who want help for people abusing prescription opioids and seeking illegal narcotics to feed addictions don't know where to turn for help.
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Parker asked if it would be helpful to develop a "toolbox" of readily accessible information and referrals.
"If we're looking for silver bullets, that's one of them," said Assistant Attorney General Scott Reed.
While Brown agreed, he said creators of such a toolbox need to be mindful of the resource and cultural differences between urban and rural Utah.
"The crescent wrench may work in Salt Lake County, but it won't work in Piute County," Brown said.