ARLINGTON — Jack was the quintessence of a Wisconsin farm boy.
He was an FFA officer, played a starring role on his high school’s football team and reigned as homecoming king.
Not everybody knew it at the time, but Jack had been in and out of jail, and in and out of rehab, because of a struggle with addiction to opium-based drugs. Not long after he was released from his latest stint in jail, he died of a heroin overdose. He was 21.
Haley Krohlow of the Wisconsin Farm Service Administration shared the story of her brother Jack on Friday at a roundtable discussion at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station, which featured U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin.
Not just an urban issue
The United States Department of Agriculture convened this discussion, and others like it across the state and across rural America, because the opioid epidemic is not just a big-city issue.
And the only way that the scourge can be addressed, Baldwin said, is through cooperation among leaders at the local, state and federal level.
“We have not done our job, until we create a better and more effective partnership with regard to funding the services that we need,” Baldwin said.
The U.S. Congress has done its part — but not completely, according to Baldwin.
The Senate’s passage in July of the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act was intended to offer more treatment options — including diversion programs like drug court — as well as address the sources of opioid addiction, including prescriptions of opium-based painkillers.
However, the funding of CARA, a proposed $1.1 billion, of which about $13 million would come to Wisconsin, did not get congressional approval.
For that reason, Baldwin said, “CARA is comprehensive, in my mind, in name only.”
Baldwin has held roundtables on the opium epidemic in communities such as Green Bay, Ashland, La Crosse, Viroqua, Superior and Eau Claire.
Why ag involvement?
But Jeff Eschmeyer, senior policy analyst to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, said many people wonder why agriculture-related agencies such as the USDA and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection are so deeply involved in the discussion about opioids.
“There’s an emergency,” Eschmeyer said, “and we have to make sure the rural piece of it is being told.”
DATCP Secretary Ben Brancel said DATCP gets “distress calls” not just from farmers who are facing financial crises due to plummeting commodity prices, but also from rural families with a member who is stealing to supply an opioid habit, or whose erratic behavior has put the farming operation in jeopardy.
Brancel noted that, in rural Wisconsin, the family member struggling with opioid addiction isn’t always a teen or young adult, and the drug isn’t always an illegal substance like heroin. It might well be a parent or grandparent, struggling with an addiction that resulted from taking legally prescribed painkillers.
Joyce Allen of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Bureau of Prevention Treatment and Recovery said she grew up on a dairy farm in Marquette County.
The camaraderie of loyal, helpful neighbors is a source of strength in rural life, she said, but it’s something that can be severely tested when someone has an addiction.
But there’s a flip side, she said — a hesitancy of rural people to be candid about their addiction-related struggles, for fear of what the neighbors might think.
“If I bring this issue up, how would people view me and my family?” she said.
Rural resources scarce
When rural people do seek help with opioid addiction, however, they almost always find that help is not easily available.
Stan Gruszynski, Wisconsin state director for the USDA’s Rural Development program, said the program can, and does, work with entities like the University of Wisconsin-Extension to help bring addiction-treatment services to rural areas, such as telemedicine (live video interaction with a health care provider who might be miles away) and expansion and development of locally-available rehabilitation services.
However, Gruszynski said, “You can’t just plop a clinic in a cornfield and say you’ve addressed the problem.”
Columbia County Health and Human Services Director Dawn Woodard and Stacy Davenport, the county’s new Medication Assisted Recovery program coordinator, shared their stories of finding ways to get services — including drugs such as Vivitrol to combat addiction — to numerous people who have come forward to seek help.
Davenport said the program, approved as part of Columbia County’s 2016 budget, has been up and running for about five months, offering comprehensive aid to people with addictions, including around-the-clock crisis response, assistance with insurance and support designed to tap into each client’s strengths to bring about recovery.
“Once we started, word was out,” Davenport noted — and as a result, a waiting list had to be created last month.
Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Todd Hepler noted, too, that the County Board’s Finance Committee recently approved a resolution accepting a state grant for the creation of a drug treatment court, similar to the drunken driving treatment court that has operated in Columbia County since 2014,
However, he said, some County Board members are worried about the continuity of funding for this and other programs aimed at addressing opioid addiction.
Baldwin praised Columbia County, not only for its efforts to establish Medication Assisted Recovery and treatment court, but also for creating Prevention and Response Columbia County, a countywide organization that involves public safety agencies, human services and the families of people dealing with addiction.
Hepler said his concern about opioids in Columbia County doesn’t stem just from his work as a judge, but also from his role as the father of two grade-school-age daughters.
“This,” he said, “scares the hell out of me,”