THE BUZZ 3: Preventing Prevention

By on January 31, 2017

Lawmakers argue that funding for substance abuse and suicide prevention organization is expendable.

Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A good swift kick—that’s what Rep. Tom Walters-R, Casper, said the leading prevention organization in the state needs, in the form of a 40-percent budget cut.

At issue is funding for Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming (PMO-Wyoming), a five-year-old nonprofit that manages and supports substance abuse and suicide prevention in all 23 Wyoming counties.

“The program has not improved one single bit,” Walters told his colleagues during the January 20 meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee.

What the numbers indicate

While suicide numbers are trending upward nationally—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2014, the suicide rate in the US increased 24 percent—Wyoming’s suicide rates have remained static over the last 15 years.

Though the state’s suicide rate is almost double the national average, the fact that Wyoming’s rates haven’t increased means prevention efforts are working, said Keith Hotle, chief executive officer of PMO-Wyoming.

“When looking at the number of people trained in suicide prevention over the past five years—almost 45,000—and the percentage of those trained who are using the skills they have learned to help people in crisis—44 percent—it is clear that our coordinated statewide efforts to stem the tide of suicides are having an impact,” he said.

Hotle said these results have gotten the attention of other states, and that Wyoming’s approach to suicide prevention is considered “the gold standard” in the nation.

“What we’ve accomplished in Wyoming in suicide prevention has never been done before in any other state.”

PMO-Wyoming has also had results in other prevention areas. Youth 30-day smoking rates have declined from 22 percent in 2009 to 15.7 percent in 2015. Adult smoking rates dropped from 23 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2015. Meanwhile youth binge drinking plummeted from 28 percent in 2008 to 19.5 percent in 2014.

Strides in the valley

PMO-Teton County is a young organization. It got its start in January 2015 with a staff of two community prevention specialists. In 24 short months, the organization has trained more than 400 people in the county in suicide prevention strategies, and has distributed more than 5,000 gunlocks, which are thought to prevent suicide in homes with firearms.

The dramatic success with gunlock distribution highlights the impact of the small-but-mighty organization and what’s at stake if its budget is halved. Not only has the program distributed an amount of gun locks equal to nearly one-fifth of Teton County’s population, it has engaged community organizations and local retailers in becoming advocates for gun violence reduction, from Teton County Library to Parks and Recreation and retailers such as the Boot Barn.

“It gets us out in the community,” said Matt Stech, PMO-Teton County community prevention specialist. “It gives different people a sense of ownership. They are advocates for gun safety.”

Gunlocks are one of a number of “means reduction” strategies recommended to reduce suicide rates. According to the Harvard School of Public Health’s Means Matter Campaign, when lethal means are made less available or less deadly, suicide rates by that method decline, and frequently suicide rates overall decline. While firearm owners are not more suicidal than non-firearm owners, their suicide attempts are more likely to be fatal because of a gun’s lethality.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide prevention, in 2015, firearms were the leading cause of suicide in the nation, used in almost 50 percent of suicides. In Wyoming, where gun ownership is high, the rate of suicides by firearm jumps to 66 percent. More than 100 people die by suicide each year in Wyoming, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in the state for people between the ages of 10 to 34.

Teton County’s success with gunlock distribution has been a model for other communities in the state, according to Hotle.

In addition to suicide prevention PMO-Teton County has enacted myriad efforts to combat substance abuse. PMO staff members educate professionals, health care providers, business leaders, parents, educators, and students about the risks of substance abuse and community approaches to reduce the risk. Its staffers have worked with law enforcement to provide free responsible beverage server training and has worked on ordinances to prevent community alcohol problems.

Unfair target?

PMO’s prevention strategies are facing a major hit if the new budget proposed by the Joint Appropriations Committee passes the Wyoming Legislature, which it is expected to do. The budget would cut $2.1 million from the state prevention budget—40 percent of the budget for alcohol and substance abuse, tobacco prevention and suicide prevention. Opponents like Walters are unconvinced by PMO’s success rates, and feel the organization is not effective. He said he wants the organization to use its funding more wisely.

“They’re proving that they just want more time and they’re not getting it done,” Walters said during a January 18 Joint Appropriations Committee meeting. He added that taking $2.1 million of the state’s general funds out of PMO’s budget would “make them use their own funds differently, and we can take our own funds and do something more productive.”

Rep. Andy Schwartz-D, Jackson, who sits on the Joint Appropriations Committee, thinks PMO is a valuable program and doesn’t support a budget cut. “It’s not what I would like to see happen,” he said.

Now that the budget has been drawn up, Schwartz says putting money back in would be difficult, but not impossible. The budget will go to the full legislature this week. Schwartz said the budget can be amended, and that he would not be surprised to see an amendment to replace prevention dollars. “When the supplemental budget comes to the floor of the House any member can introduce an amendment to add money back in,” he said. “I am not currently aware of anyone proposing to do so. I am not sure if it could pass, but it could make for an interesting debate.”

Sen. Dan Dockstader-R, Afton, who also sits on the Joint Appropriations Committee, said it all comes down to the across-the-board cuts the state faces because of low energy sector revenues. “We have been tasked to make cuts with all agencies and all programs,” he said. “However, the process is not over and some funding could return through the reading and amendment process.”

Hotle says the dramatic cuts unfairly target his organization. “We’re not saying we shouldn’t shoulder any of the burden—we have and we will,” he said. “But to just look at a budget line item and say, ‘Let’s cut it in half and give it a swift kick,’ it doesn’t have any grounding in evidence.” PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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