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Experts: Employers can lend a helping hand in opioid recovery

WABASH, Ind. — Rural communities are as susceptible to the opioid crisis as large cities. But, with compassion, treatment and proper funding, recovery is possible, according to speakers at the Rural Opioid Symposium July 26, organized in Wabash by the Indiana Rural Health Assoc. and AgrIInstitute.

Speaker Dan Krouse, general manager of Midwest Poultry Services LP of Mentone, told the roughly 40 attendees that the issue has definitely affected him. "It's a real drain on the business. ... Every rural employer is affected."

As the ninth-largest Indiana egg producer, he employs about 600 people, and he's tried to adapt to the times. "An employee came to me in 2013 and said he had a problem with opioid addiction,” he began.

“He had been a great employee, but had been in a car accident, prescribed opioids (for the pain and became addicted) ... We wanted to help him and were more lenient with him (when he came in late).

"I went to his house and it was cold, dirty and there was no food in the fridge. It hit me (how big a problem the opioid crisis is for everyone)." Unfortunately, the man did not get better and eventually was found dead in his home.

Krouse said opioid addiction causes lost time, reduced productivity, people falling asleep at meetings, turnover and the need for retraining at businesses large and small. Three of four farm workers are or have been directly impacted by opioid abuse, according to a 2017 American Farm Bureau Federation poll.

And 45 percent of rural adults are or have been directly impacted by opioid abuse, either by knowing someone, having a family member addicted, having taken an illegal opioid or dealing with addiction themselves. Full poll results can be found at

Because employers see the same people every day, they are on the front lines of a solution to the problem. "You can offer treatment programs, be flexible, destigmatize it in the workplace and talk about it," Krouse said.

While he does not have a specific drug treatment plan in place, he said, "We don't have it in our employee policy manual that 'if you fail a drug test, you're fired.' Have compassion for people and don't write them off just because they're addicted."

Krouse does think it dangerous to remove pre-employment drug testing, though.

Scott Nedberg, pastor of Warren United Church of Christ, has seen the effects of the crisis on his congregation, comprised of 70 percent farmers. "(Opioid use and abuse) is very prevalent in farming country. I counsel kids who have worked on (farms) and were raised by farmers. They're not immune to drugs and can get started in high school. It's not just a city issue,” he explained.

Another symposium attendee, Terry Miller, Huntington County Council member, had read that rural and farming areas are singled out (for drug sales) in the book Dreamland: the True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic.

"Rural communities are targeted because it's not as easy to detect (the problem)," Miller said. "Farmers need to educate themselves so they understand why we're asking for funding (for recovery services).”

Financing the solution can get creative, said speaker Michael Dora, Indiana state director of Rural Development for USDA. He explained counties can add a penny or less to the local property tax rate or Local Option Income Tax to raise funds and borrow money from the USDA. These dollars can be used to build or remodel spaces as recovery residences.

"We have fire districts along county lines," he said. "We need recovery districts so a group of counties can come together with assets (and raise funds together)."

Recovery housing seems a good value for those transitioning from opioid abuse to a drug-free life, according to speaker Larry Blue, director of Indiana Affiliation of Recovery Residences. He has appeared on "The 700 Club" television show four times to tell his recovery story and has nine arrests, seven felonies and prison time in his past.

Multiple studies show that recovery housing leads to high rates of employment (79-86 percent), Blue said. It also decreases substance abuse and incarceration rates and increases income, family and social functioning and quality of life.

Currently, there are fewer than 1,900 Indiana beds available in recovery housing, he said. Of the state's 92 counties, 63 are without recovery residences – primarily rural counties. "These are not 'halfway houses,'" as that has a bad connotation, he said. "They are safe, alcohol- and drug-free."

Opioid abusers who have been jailed need recovery housing even more, said speaker Jim McClelland, executive director for drug prevention, treatment and enforcement in Gov. Eric Holcomb's office.

"They are 12 times more likely to die of overdose than the general population (when released from jail)," he said. "We also need more recovery support groups in churches.” Right now there are 28 voluntary support recovery groups in churches for those struggling with addictions, statewide.

McClelland added the good news is that more federal money – $17.8 million in State Opioid Response Grant funds over the next two years – is coming to the state to enhance opioid recovery services. Indiana University, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Wellness Council, Indiana Workforce Recovery and others are raising funds as well.

Ethan Lawson, who works with McClelland, said the goal of this funding is to increase access to Medication Assisted Treatment, meet existing treatment needs and reduce overdose deaths through prevention, treatment and recovery activities.