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Roundtable host and USDA Rural Development Director for Kentucky Hilda Legg gives an introduction talk Wednesday before discussion of possible solutions to the opioid crisis by panelists.

It isn't news that Kentucky has been hit hard by the national opioid epidemic. Local and state leaders have called for action and worked to find a solution. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is jumping on board to find and implement solutions here and across the nation.

On Wednesday, the department held a roundtable in Berea to discuss the possible causes of the epidemic and what solutions might work, with representatives from several of Kentucky's lawmakers present.

Kentucky was one of five spots chosen nationwide for roundtables. Of 220 counties found in a recent report to be in distress from the epidemic, 54 were in Kentucky, roundtable host and USDA Rural Development Director for Kentucky Hilda Legg said.

The USDA has the resources to help in the fight, not only in immediate response but also to address the more systemic issues that can lead to drug addiction, assistant to the secretary for USDA Rural Development Anne Hazlett said.

The department has received funding it has dedicated to fighting the epidemic, she added.

The USDA has gotten involved because of the widespread effects of the issue, particularly in rural America.

"No corner of our country has been untouched," Hazlett said.

It has hit rural areas the hardest, and that includes farmers. In October 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the rates of drug overdose deaths are rising in rural areas, surpassing rates in urban areas, according to information from the USDA.

About 74 percent of farmers have been personally affected by opioid addiction.

The most effective solutions are at the local level, which is one of the reasons for the roundtables, she said.

"We're really focusing on building strategic partnerships," she said.

John Tilley, secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, called the crisis a pandemic, but pointed out the widespread opioid addiction issue is still classified as an epidemic, meaning a widespread occurrence in a community rather than over a whole country or the world.

"I believe it is a pandemic," Tilley said.

The roundtable was made up of medical professionals, public health officials, healthcare administrators and directors of non-profits dedicated to addiction treatment.

And it included comments from a recovering addict.

Alex Elswick, co-founder of the treatment center Voices of Hope in Lexington, said his genetic predisposition to addiction and that he struggled with anxiety made him ripe for developing a problem, though he grew up in a loving home.

His addiction began when he was 15 and tried marijuana for the first time.

"It was the first time in my life my anxiety went away, and the first time I felt normal," he said.

For Elswick, addiction was a gradual process, but ended with him at rock bottom. The last week he struggled with addiction he was staying under a bridge in Dayton, Ohio, shooting up heroin. He stood out with a cardboard sign asking for money.

Elswick has been in recovery since 2013, and said he wants to tell his story to humanize the issue, and to help de-stigmatize it.

Tilley pointed to several steps state agencies have taken to combat the epidemic, including the statewide Angel Initiative that launched in March that allows anyone battling addiction to come to any Kentucky State Police post and receive help finding an addiction treatment center. The state set the gold standard in prescription tracking, and was the first southern state to start a syringe support program, Tilley said.

State government continues to fight, Tilley said.

"I will promise you; this administration is working every day," he said. "This is the priority in our state."

USDA is investing in prevention, treatment and recovery capacity at the rural community level through several core programs. Three Rural Development programs offering loans and grants are currently available to assist communities in need.

The USDA has a variety of grant programs available, including a community facilities program grant of up to $150,000 for projects that address the opioid crisis in rural America, a distance learning and telemedicine grant program that gives priority to applications for project to provide opioid misuse prevention, treatment or recovery services; and a rural health and safety education grants program for projects involving health education programs.

The other states chosen for USDA roundtables are Pennsylvania, Utah, Oklahoma and Maine.

Reach Kelly McKinney at 624-6626; follow her on Twitter @kellymckinney18.

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