CEDAR CITY — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently awarded millions in grants to Utah organizations to fight the growing opioid crisis.
Southern Utah University was among those awarded nearly $1 million for its Utah Center for Rural Health. This investment will enable the Health Resources and Services Administration-funded rural organizations to establish and expand access to integrated substance use disorder and mental health services.
The award supports HHS’s Five-Point Opioid Strategy introduced under President Donald Trump in 2017. The number of patients receiving medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction at HRSA-funded health centers increased 142% from 2016 to 2018, and the number of patients receiving buprenorphine, a common form of medication-assisted treatment, has increased 28% over the last four years.
“Health centers and behavioral health providers are on the front lines of the fight against the opioid crisis and substance abuse, especially in rural communities,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a press release. “With our evidence-based strategy, HHS is working to support local communities in fighting back against substance abuse, and our united efforts are yielding results. Together, we can end our country’s opioid crisis and lay a foundation for a healthier country where every American can access the mental healthcare they need.”
In total, 80 rural agencies received awards of $1 million each to implement a set of prevention, treatment and recovery activities.
Utah State University Extension was also awarded a $1 million grant for the Tribal and Rural Opioid Initiative. Its grant will fund an integrated opioid response effort that bridges prevention, treatment and recovery in Tooele County, with additional tribal outreach in the Uintah Basin area.
According to Sandra H. Sulzer, USU Extension health and wellness specialist and director of the Office of Health Equity and Community Engagement, rural communities are often critically underserved when receiving healthcare resources, which also extends to addiction prevention and treatment.
“The Centers for Disease Control shows that Tooele County currently has the second highest opioid-related mortality rate in the state,” Sulzer said. “Opioid-related emergency visits are also particularly high in Tooele at 1.3 times the state average.”
Sulzer said these challenges extend to reservations as well.
“By joining with tribal partners through the Tribal and Rural Opioid Initiative, we will better engage with groups often left out of prevention efforts,” she said. “The initiative will also target the Uintah Basin.”
Maren Wright Voss, USU Extension professional practice assistant professor of health and wellness, will serve as the Tooele County director for the program.
“The grant funding will amp up disease prevention efforts and offer alternative pain management programs which are so needed for responsible opioid management,” Voss said. “It will also address gaps in resources often found in rural areas like Tooele.”
At SUU, the Utah Center for Rural Health will use its one-year grant from the HHS to develop a consortium in three Utah counties that are among the nation’s most vulnerable. The three counties, Carbon, Emery and Beaver, have been heavily impacted by the opioid crisis.
The consortium brings together rural entities with the support of statewide organizations. That planning grant established the Utah Rural Opioid Healthcare Consortium that has convened rural summits over the past year, assisted healthcare providers achieve training and built networks of resources for rural community members.
“The grant will give the consortium the necessary funding over the next three years to better equip rural healthcare providers and organizations to help provide services equal to what patients may find in urban areas,”said Rita Osborn, executive director of the Center for Rural Health and principal investigator for the grant.
“For example, transportation is a huge barrier for our rural patients. Some of this grant will provide transportation vouchers. Another area of improvement will be the training of peer coaches who support patients recovering from substance abuse,” Osborn said.
To learn more about HRSA’s work combating the opioid crisis, visit SUU’s website.