By Gary Brock
WASHINGTON D.C. — When 73 Ohio farmers from 73 counties across the state traveled to Washington D.C. to discuss issues vital to agriculture community last month, they had no idea that one of the biggest issues they would discuss was a crisis happening back in their own rural communities – opioid addition.
In 2016, eight Ohioans died every day from a drug overdoes. Many of them in rural communities.
And that drug crisis has attracted attention.
During the 71st Ohio Farm Bureau’s President’s Trip to Washington D.C. March 13 to 15, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown addressed the Farm Bureau members as he has each year, talking about farming and agriculture issues. However this time, he started off with a different topic.
“There was a piece in the New York Times (the previous Sunday) about a Blanchester farmer who lost a son and a daughter to opioid addiction. He has a third son who farms with him, and has been in and out of prison and in and out of addiction treatment,” Brown told the farmers.
“This opioid addiction problem in Ohio sort of began in southern Ohio in rural areas. It began with some unscrupulous doctors over-prescribing medication such oxycontin, vicodin and percocet. It has evolved unbelievably so in Ohio. Heroin addiction – heroin is cheaper to buy on the street than those pain medications,” Brown added.
In fact, both the Times and NBC News did stories on the Roger Winemiller family in Wayne Township, on the border of Clinton County and Clermont County.
According to these news reports, Winemiller had lost two adult children to heroin overdoses, and he’s scared of losing another son, Roger T. Winemiller.
“Would I like to have one of my kids working the farm, side by side, carrying my load when I can’t?” Mr. Winemiller told the Times. “Yes. But I’m a realist.”
In rural Wayne Township, where the Winemillers and about 4,900 other people live, the local fire department answered 18 overdose calls last year. Firefighters answered three in one week this winter, and said the spikes and lulls in their overdose calls gave them a feel for when particularly noxious batches of drugs were brought out to the countryside from Cincinnati or Dayton.
While these articles on the rural drug epidemic in Ohio has generated a lot of national attention, the local Wilmington News Journal had reported on the the plight of the Winemillers several months ago, based on a Cincinnati TV station’s report. Here is what the News Journal reported:
“The Winemiller family … lost a daughter to heroin addiction earlier (in 2016), and has now lost a son to the same thing.
When Roger Winemiller’s daughter, Heather, died of an overdose this past Easter weekend, he told his son, Gene, looking on in a stunned, devastated fashion, that it could be him one day if he didn’t shake his addiction.
Barry Eugene Winemiller, a 37-year-old father of three, died of a heroin overdose five days before Christmas, 2016.
His father told WLWT that peer pressure started his son on drugs when he was around 20 years old.
“You know, here, try this, you get started on the pills, the pills lead to heroin. Heroin’s easier to get ahold of, cheaper to buy,” recounted Winemiller at his farmhouse.
Close to where he sat, a framed picture of his son on graduation day at Blanchester High School looked back at him from a side table. The young man’s desires were rooted in the simplicity of rural Ohio.
He liked to hunt and fish, had an abiding affinity for the family farm, loved nature and loved life, according to his dad. “He loved his Beatles and classic rock and roll,” Wimemiller said, while chuckling at the memory.
As he spoke, he wore a bright “Hope Over Heroin” T-shirt, saying his son got clean several times.
But the addiction had too powerful a pull to overcome.
He said that with dealers lacing heroin with Fentanyl and Carfentanyl to increase potency, it’s a narcotic version of Russian roulette. “Buy you some heroin to shoot up just to get that little high, you don’t know if it’s going to be the empty chamber, or the loaded chamber,” he said.
The funeral for Winemiller’s son at Blanchester’s Church of Christ (was to be) followed the next day by a funeral for another heroin victim.
The pastor at that church said that the rural region is getting ravaged by heroin, and that in the New Year, more must be done at every level of society to reduce the destructive impact of the heroin problem.
On the verge of burying a second child, Winemiller said he leans on his faith, his family, his friends and on the truth of what must be done.
“I can’t emphasize enough, no one, no one is immune from this epidemic,” he said.
During the Farm Bureau’s Presidents’ Trip in Washington D.C., several speakers talked with them about Ohio’s drug addiction epidemic.
“I was in Chillicothe one day at a roundtable on this issue. I said to someone, ‘How hard is it to buy heroin in Chillicothe?’ And the person said just go outside and walk around for about 30 seconds and someone will come up to you,” Sen. Brown told the Farm Bureau members in Washington D.C.
“This society has a problem, the problem has hurt rural America more than everywhere else, but it is everywhere. It started in counties such as Scioto and Adams and Brown, in that part of the state. The drugs apparently started from Florida up U.S. 23, but now it is urban, rural, suburban, it’s small town, its’s virtually in every community in Ohio. We obviously have to pay more attention to this,” Brown said.
Brown pointed out that the news article said that overdoses are churning through the agricultural pockets of America like a plow through soil.
Both Brown and Sen. Rob Portman told the Ohio farmers they were concerned about continued funding for Ohio’s drug addiction programs — funding that may be cut.
“Last year I worked with Sen. Portman on the CARA Act, Comprehensive Addition and Recovery Act and the 21st Century CURES Act. They were good first steps, but haven’t gone far enough. The wait list for treatment is too long and too slow. Ohio is first in the nation in opioid deaths. It is something we have got way more serious about,” Brown said.
He said Portman and Gov. Kasich have joined him on in this funding issue to sure that “the 700,000 in Ohio receiving treatment through the Affordable Care Act continue to receive treatment. These are people making $8-10 an hour and do not have insurance. But 200,000 people who have insurance through the Affordable Care Act are getting treatment because they have the insurance.”
Ohio’s rural treatment centers are at risk, Brown said. “We have got to make sure we can scale up our treatment centers. There are not enough centers. There are waiting lists at the treatment facilities.
“The worst thing we can do is repeal the Affordable Care Act. It would pretty much almost immediately throw 200,000 people who are getting treatment today with insurance under the Affordable Care Act. What do we say to them? Sorry, your treatment is over? It would tear apart families. When you talk to families of those with an addiction it turns the family upside down, whether the person is 30 or 14,” said Brown.
Portman said drug addiction has hit Ohio’s rural communities hard.
“I would imagine a lot of people in this room have been affected by this directly or indirectly by the heroin-prescription drug issue. The expanded Medicaid coverage for those in treatment, without it they would have no other options. The last thing we want is to have less treatment in Ohio,” Portman told the Ohio farmers the day after Brown spoke.
“I can almost assure that in your county that if you talk to law enforcement they will tell you that this is the number one cause of crime in your county. Theft, fraud, shoplifting and robbery … people are trying to pay for their habit. It is the number one cause of crime in Ohio. We have to deal with this issue. We have to get our young people to have a different frame of mind about this It is in every zip code and every age group,” Portman said.Portman added that half of the cost of the expanded Medicaid program in Ohio is going to this one issue.
“Whole communities have been hit very hard by this opioid epidemic, and it is an epidemic. Heroin, prescription drugs and now this synthetic drug called Fentanyl,” he said.
Portman commended the Farm Bureau for taking a leadership role in prevention, education in the schools and in 4-H teaching kids to not go down that path.
“I also talked about the need for a health care system that provides funding for treatment, because although prevention and education is the best idea to keep people out of the grip of this addiction, it is tough to get out of it unless you have the right treatment and long term recovery. And a lot of the funding for that does come from our heath care system,” Portman pointed out.
“I want to make sure that those people who are getting coverage don’t lose that coverage for treatment because if that happens we are going to have even more problems in our state.”
Another speaker, former Ohio State University agriculture economist Matt Roberts, talked about finding employees in skilled trades, such as electricians. “You all know how difficult it is. There are a number of opening in the skilled trades, but we have a society telling kids they have to go to college.
But Darke County farmer Matt Aultman asked Roberts about the relationship between the easy availability of heroin and other drugs and the job market.
“New reports out are shocking on opiates. We have more deaths today from opioids than we did during the crack epidemic in the 1980s,” Roberts said. He said there is a correlation between the rural drug epidemic and rural workforce.
“How do we build a workforce? It’s not an issue of trade. It’s not an issue of college. There are 8-9,000 industrial engineers on the campus of FoxCon in China where they produce iPhones. That’s why IPhones are not built here,” he said.
Roberts said the lack of workforce readiness means there is a lack of opportunities, “and they don’t have hope, and then drugs become your escape. That’s human”
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.