U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Meets With Native Leaders

With orders from President Barack Obama to go on a fact-finding trip, last month, Tom Vilsack, the United States Secretary of Agriculture, met with several American Indian leaders for their insight about the fight in Indian Country against drug addiction.

“There is not a clear connection between agriculture and opioid abuse,” said Arlan D. Melendez, one of the 11 tribal leaders asked to join Vilsack during his trip to Nevada.  “But it is clear, Secretary Vilsack wants to find creative ways to help Indian Country with its infrastructure and with funding for programs that will stop drug addiction.”

According to Secretary Vilsack his office primarily provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues using the best available science, and effective management.

However, since Secretary Vilsack also serves as the chair of the White House Rural Council and because he knows first-hand the chaos drug addiction can cause, Secretary Vilsack is an ideal person to lead the president’s nationwide initiative to fight opioid addiction.

Secretary Vilsack explained to the tribal leaders and another 25 people in the audience at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center, that the Department of Agriculture can assist with the construction of buildings which can be used as treatment facilities, recovery centers, and transitional housing.

The former governor of Iowa, Secretary Vilsack added that the USDA also has special
programs to help tribes and other rural communities to build the physical structures needed for internet access.

Secretary Vilsack emphasized that a lot of tribes, especially those in remote areas, are looking to use the internet to connect physicians and patients.

Telemedicine, which requires a satellite or a computer, is the practice of medicine when the doctor and patient are in different locations, sometimes thousands of miles apart, using two-way voice and visual communication.  Secretary Vilsack says that telemedicine could include treatment for patients fighting addictions.

Nevada is the fourth state Vilsack has visited since May in which he has brought
together community stake-holders to address the opioid crisis.

After his roundtable discussion at the RSTHC which included area tribal chairman, Indian health care experts, addiction and recovery professionals as well as interested RSTHC staff, Secretary Vilsack and Chairman Melendez held a press conference.

While speaking to the press, Secretary Vilsack outlined four areas of focus:  prevention, treatment, criminal justice reform and economic development. “We need to give our people fighting addiction a transition,” says Secretary Vilsack, “A way of getting strong, of building resistance, if you will.”

The President’s budget is calling for more than 1.1 billion dollars to support states, like Nevada, fighting opioid abuse. Vilsack says already a $94 million grant will help build or expand 271 treatment facilities across the nation. That’s on top of millions more to help make drugs treating overdose more available.

Vilsack also called for more transitional housing and drug courts to get people long term treatment other than prison.

Finally, economic development, he says will provide hope for the people, which RSIC
Tribal Chairman Arlan Melendez agrees.

“Creating jobs and small business development—,” Chairman Melendez said, “those type of things will give people the sense of empowerment, so that they can take their rightful place in Native American communities.”

During the round table, several of the Native leaders echoed Chairman Melendez’s sentiments.

They shared stories which indicated that a bleak future because of dysfunctional family units, low academic success, and high unemployment led many Native Americans to feel hopeless.

“That despair often leads to addiction,” said Monty Williams, the director of the Statewide Native American Coalition.

According to a report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, one in five American Indians 12 years and older have used illicit drugs.  Indian Health Services recently reported that the rate of drug-related deaths among American Indian and Alaska Native people is almost twice that of the general population.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicates that death from prescription opioid overdose among American Indian increased almost four-fold from 1999 to 2013.

Veronica Domingues-Gephart, who is the director of the behavioral health department at the RSTHC, said that in Indian Country, opioid dependency is often linked
to depression and anxiety among young people.

“What we have found is that often times the youth are suffering a lot from identity issues,” Domingues-Gephart said. “These emotional issues can eventually lead to substance and opioid abuse as a coping mechanism.”

More data from the CDC supports Domingues-Gephart’s statements.

Throughout the U.S., over 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids every single day.

Two years ago, 10,500 individuals died from a heroin overdose which was a 26 percent increase from 2013.  Over 9 million children in the U.S., live with a parent or other adult who uses illegal drugs.  Even more alarming, the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children believes the numbers in Indian Country are worse.

“Opioid addiction is such a serious problem that it is impacting and affecting people in every state of the country,” Secretary Vilsack said. “…opioid abuse is an equal opportunity killer and we know that opioids are the introductory drug. Eighty percent of all heroin users begin their use with opioids.”

In addition to outlining the latest harrowing statistics about drug addiction, Secretary Vilsack also shared his own experience.

“When I was young, my mom struggled mightily with addiction,” Secretary Vilsack said. I saw a downward spiral in her life for five or six years, where she was hospitalized a couple of times and even attempted suicide.”

Mercifully, Secretary Vilsack said that his mother turned her life around, primarily because there were people to help her.

“What is painful for me to hear, is these current situations where either families do not acknowledge they need help, or when they do acknowledge it, there is no one there to provide the help and the assistance needed.”

Secretary Vilsack’s visit to the RSTHC was his first in Indian Country.