USDA Rural Development innovation center may take on opioid crisis |

USDA Rural Development innovation center may take on opioid crisis

Anne Hazlett
The Hagstrom Report |

The new innovation center in the Rural Development mission area at the Agriculture Department may take on the opioid crisis in rural America, Anne Hazlett, assistant to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, said.

The opioid crisis, which was highlighted early Nov. 30 in a public opinion poll commissioned jointly by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union, is “a great example of a complex issue where we need a new eye,” Hazlett said.

The Rural Development mission area is known mostly for its many grant and loan programs for utilities, community buildings, energy development and water and sewer projects, but Hazlett said the innovation center would be involved more broadly in rural America affairs. Some of the activities are policy and trend analysis in rural issues, data analysis and program outcomes measurement, regulatory affairs, strategic planning and capacity building and partnership development with the private sector, between levels of government and within USDA mission areas, she said.

On opioids, Hazlett said, Rural Development officers could help communities learn best practices from other places that have been addressing opioid addiction. The innovation center can “pair” communities even though no two rural communities are the same, she said.

Perdue recently announced the political appointments of the rural development state directors in the states and territories and Gina Sheets, who was appointed to direct the innovation center, said the state directors would be able to point to the places that have has some success in addressing opioid addiction in rural America.

Those state directors “are the feet on the ground, they have the ears and eyes,” Sheets said. On opioids, “they know the conversation around the state, can talk about what impact is being made through other programs, what is working and not working. They can bring innovation in — what has worked in other states, what is not working and identifying why,” she said. They can also “shore up gaps” in systems, she added.

Hazlett noted Perdue announced plans for the innovation center in September and he used the model “with great success” as governor of Georgia and “is excited to put it into practice here at USDA.”

Sheets is a political appointee, but she will have a career USDA civil servant as her deputy. Other career staff will help in bringing innovation to each of Rural Development’s many programs, Hazlett said.