Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott declared a statewide public health emergency to combat the pill-mill crisis that was killing seven people a day.
Six years later, Florida faces an even deadlier killer. This time it's heroin, which is killing 10 people a day.
As he did with Zika last summer, we urge the governor to recognize the heroin epidemic for what it is — a public health emergency in urgent need of greater funding, increased awareness and wider distribution of naloxone, a drug used to treat overdoses.
"There is no family, no race, no ethnicity, no income level this epidemic cannot touch — and no effective state bulwark in place to stop it," Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens wrote in a letter to the governor.
Indeed, Marion County Commissioner Kathy Bryant — this year's president of the Florida Association of Counties — lost her brother, Daniel, to an overdose last July. She's not the only county commissioner who's lost someone to heroin, either. The association made addressing the opioid epidemic one of its top five priorities this year.
"People don't think it's people like you and me, and that's just not the case," says Bryant, of Ocala. "It's everywhere. It's one of those drugs that's extremely hard to get away from once you start it."
The association is seeking more money for mental health care and substance abuse, knowing addicts don't generally have insurance for treatment and families can afford only so much. They also want to ensure ambulances are stocked with naloxone, noting some South Florida fire departments can't afford it. And they seek tougher penalties for people who sell heroin, a good goal, though it's hard to believe tougher penalties will stop sales. Sure, longer sentences could keep dealers off the streets longer, but the painful truth is that addicts will find another supplier.
In other states that have declared public health emergencies, like Virginia, anyone can now obtain naloxone at pharmacies without a prescription, which lets families and friends be prepared to help people in the throes of an overdose. And Massachusetts released $20 million two years ago to get more addicts into treatment.
Sadly, the rise in heroin abuse is associated with the closure of the pain-pill clinics. Plus, heroin is increasingly compounded with fentanyl, a synthetic drug that can be lethal at low doses. Bad batches and uncertainty about potency are part of what's causing so many deaths.
Between 2013 and 2014, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission says deaths from heroin increased 124 percent. The next year, heroin deaths rose 80 percent. The trend shows no sign of ebbing.
Beyond the human toll, the costs are staggering.
The Palm Beach Post investigated the crisis and reports some stunning numbers:
• In the first nine months of 2015, Florida hospitals charged $1.1 billion for heroin-related visits, with many of those bills going unpaid.
• From 2010 to 2015, Florida hospitals charged $5.7 billion for heroin-related visits, including $2.1 billion to the state Medicaid program.
• In those same five years, hospitals charged $967 million for babies born addicted to heroin. Medicaid was the primary payer in almost all of those cases — $826 million.
Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in a statement that the administration is listening. Surgeon General Celeste Philip and Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll are scheduled to meet with legislators "to hear their input on the subject." In Florida, the surgeon general is the person who formally calls a public health emergency.
State health officials should listen hard and make the obvious call. For not only is the heroin epidemic killing people, it's destroying families and leaving children without parents.
Schenone noted that Scott's proposed budget includes $4 million for the Florida Violent Crime and Drug Control Council, of which $2 million will "be provided for financial assistance to local law enforcement to conduct investigations related to heroin abuse."
That's not nearly enough money. It's expensive to treat addiction, wage public education campaigns and stock ambulances with emergency drugs.
These last few months, the governor has been waging the fight of his political life to secure $85 million in economic incentives to lure businesses to Florida.
Let us see equal tenacity in fighting for Florida families facing the consequences of addiction.
Let us see Attorney General Pam Bondi show the same muscle she used in fighting pill mills to fight the heroin epidemic.
Let the governor call the heroin epidemic what it is: a public health emergency.
And let Daniel's family — his sister and brothers, his three children, his parents, everyone — be the last to face the despair of this epidemic on their own.
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