US Agriculture Secretary to Host Town Hall in Columbia on Opioid Addiciton

Jul 20, 2016

There's been a national spike in the number of deaths from opioid drug overdoses over the past 15 years and some of the biggest increases have come in the Midwest. Missouri is no exception and also holds the distinction of being the only state without a prescription drug monitoring database—a common tool for preventing abuse.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack head's the nation's initiative on rural opioid addiction. On Friday, Vilsack and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill will host a town hall meeting in Columbia to discuss the epidemic with media and invited guests. 

KBIA spoke with Secretary Vilsack earlier this week. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for content and clarity.

Over the course of the last 15 years or so we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of opioid prescriptions, and an increase in the number of people misusing those prescriptions, and becoming addicted, and moving into a more dangerous situation with heroin. The result has been an increase in deaths—over 26,000 people died as a result of opioid abuse or heroin use in 2014, and that is a number that exceeds the of number people who are dying from automobile accidents.

It's something that is particularly difficult for rural areas because of the increased use of opioids in treating physical conditions resulting from the hard work that folks do and the injuries that occur. And the fact that there is not the level of treatment capacity available as there is in cities. So it's a very difficult challenge particularly for rural areas.

How much of the challenge is economic as well? Because rural America, and rural Missouri, they don't look the way they did 20 years ago.

I'd say there's a combination. Clearly the nature of jobs that we currently have in rural America lends itself to more physical activity, which of course leads to a potential for more injuries—more back problems and more situations where people have to have pain managed.

Secondly, I think that there's no question that in some parts and some small towns across the country people may not believe their tomorrow's going to be any better than their today. They don't see a pathway to a more positive opportunity, and that may encourage them to go down a different path.

Finally, if people do unfortunately get addicted to these medications or move into heroin, and they are trying to seek treatment, the reality is that oftentimes in rural areas that treatment is not readily available. So you may miss the moment of opportunity for people to turn their life around.

You'll be here in Columbia, Missouri on Friday, what are you hoping to accomplish while you're here?

First and foremost I want to make sure that we lift up the nature of the problem, to be able to explain to people the status of the problem in a state like Missouri. They need to know that they've seen an increase in in deaths in Missouri. They need to understand that the state of Missouri is the only state in the country that does have a [prescription drug] monitoring program. I think they need to understand that there is an opportunity for the state to get additional resources—up to $17 million of additional assistance under the president's budget.

They need to understand that when the decision is made not to expand Medicaid in their state that approximately 91,000 uninsured people who would otherwise be getting mental illness or substance abuse help are not getting it. So I think raising awareness of the challenges and raising awareness of the steps can be taken to alleviate the pain and suffering of folks who are addicted and their family members who are suffering from it.