Barletta Helps to Lead Fight Against Opioid Related Employment Challenges

Dec 12, 2017
Press Release

WASHINGTON – Today Congressman Lou Barletta (PA-11), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management held a hearing titled, “The Opioid Epidemic in Appalachia: Addressing Hurdles to Economic Development in the Region.” 

The hearing examined the impact of the opioid crisis on efforts in Appalachia to spur economic development and growth in distressed communities.  A representative of Pennsylvania’s 11th District, Barletta held the hearing to explore possible solutions through federal economic development programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), in addressing this epidemic. 

Barletta directed a series of questions to the Honorable Earl Gohl, federal co-Chair of the ARC.  Barletta asked, “What would help ARC’s work on opioids to be more effective?”

“I would say a seat at the table is probably the most effective thing that works in this town,” Gohl responded.  “When ARC is part of the discussion, when ARC is part of the development, when ARC is part of hearings like this, it makes sure that the rural voice is heard.”

Barletta asked, “What is the role of ARC in helping to address the opioid problem?”

“I think we have several roles,” Gohl said.  “I think it is important for us to work with our state partners, who really are the agenda setters of the commission in terms of the investment of dollars, to work with them and make sure that the issue of opioids, the workforce and how it effects communities is a challenge that they focus on and use their resources to invest in.  I think that we need to continue the work around community organizations and being able to empower them… I think one of the other issues that we really need to focus on is making sure that people understand that this is a disease, and that we need to treat it like a disease.”

The ARC, specifically, was created in the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965.  The primary function of ARC is to provide economic development assistance to a 13-state region.  The region includes all of West Virginia and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia.  ARC is a federal-state governmental agency consisting of the governors of the 13 Appalachian states and a federal co-chairman.  Project proposals must originate in, and be approved by, a state.  The Commission allocates the level of funding to each state.  

This year, the ARC commissioned two reports specifically examining potential health challenges to economic development in Appalachia.  In August 2017, the ARC issued “Health Disparities in Appalachia” and “Appalachian Diseases of Despair.”  These reports detail the health and economic disparities in Appalachia:

  • The household income in Appalachia is 80 percent of the U.S. average and 17 percent of Appalachians live below the poverty level.
  • Nationally, the majority of drug overdose deaths involve opioids and, since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids quadrupled.
  • Between 1999 and 2014, while the overall mortality rate in non-Appalachian states decreased by 10 percent, the overall mortality rate in Appalachia increased by 5 percent.  By 2015, the overall mortality rate in Appalachia was 32 percent higher than non-Appalachian regions of the U.S.
  • In 2015, among 15 to 64 year olds in Appalachia, there were 5,594 overdose deaths – 65 percent higher in Appalachia than the rest of the nation. The disparities were greatest among people 25 to 54.
  • In 2015, 69 percent of the overdose deaths were caused by opioids.
  • In comparing the mortality rates for diseases of despair within states with Appalachian portions and non-Appalachian portions – the differences were stark. For example, in 2015, the mortality rate in Appalachian portions of Maryland were 63 percent higher than in non-Appalachian portions.  In Pennsylvania, the difference was 28 percent and in Kentucky it was 26 percent.

The reports highlight that when examining specifically overdose deaths, those individuals who are 25 to 44 years old experienced mortality rates 70 percent higher than the non-Appalachian states.  Typically, this group includes those in their prime working years which has created a significant challenge to economic development in the region. 

For example, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, citing a report released in September 2017, noted that opioids are responsible for 20 percent of the workforce decline for men and 25 percent for women.  The Chamber further noted that addressing the opioid epidemic is an integral component of workforce strategy. 

As a result, the opioid crisis has created challenges to spurring economic development and job creation in already distressed communities.

Barletta also questioned Mr. Barry L. Denk, the Director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

“Mr. Denk, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania has done a lot of work for the Pennsylvania General Assembly,” Barletta said.  “It seems the impact of the Opioid crisis on the workforce is significant.  From the information the Center has gathered, can you highlight how opioid abuse has created barriers for attracting jobs and how will the General Assembly use the information you collected to address this issue?”

“We have heard from a number of testifiers, particularly those in recovery, where prior felony convictions still linger for them, not just in employment opportunities, but in regard to employment itself,” Denk responded.

“We also heard from a number of judges about the effects of drug courts and how helpful they are for somebody who has committed a crime but needs to turn their life around. We’re looking to expand drug courts across the Commonwealth, [where] currently out of 67 counties, only 38 drug courts exist in those counties,” Denk concluded.

Barletta later turned to Ms. Nancy Hale, the President and CEO of Operation UNITE, a non-profit launched in 2003 by Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers (KY-05) to create strategic partnerships at the local level by providing leadership, education, treatment, and support for law enforcement to combat drug abuse. 

“Ms. Hale, Operation UNITE has done a lot in Eastern Kentucky and has become a resource for other communities.” Barletta asked, “What types of programs have you found to be the most impactful in addressing the opioid crisis and are there models that other states like Pennsylvania can use?”

“Our education prevention programs have had the greatest impact,” Hale responded.  “Also we’re seeing an impact in our programming in working with the administrative office of the courts through our drug court programs.  We are learning that drug courts do work.  There are many people who are in recovery, who make excellent employees because of what they have endured and now understand the structure that is being brought into their lives through the drug court programs.”

“Education and prevention.  We have a mobile prevention unit that we target seventh and tenth graders – that has had a huge impact.  The University of Kentucky compiles the data from the pre and post surveys with that program.  We also have programs that were taken into the elementary schools where we are introducing young people at an early age to the dangers and harms, preparing them with knowledge, helping them make healthy decisions even as early as third grade.  And then of course our AmeriCorps program. We have 54 AmeriCorps members serving in 13 counties in our district and those AmeriCorps members work primarily on math tutoring but they also are introducing a ‘Too Good For Drugs’ curriculum that impacts the parents, the staff, and the community in prevention initiatives.”

To watch Rep. Barletta’s full question set, please click HERE and HERE.