Scott declares opioid 'emergency' in Florida

Health officials hope $1.5M pilot program saves lives

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Pointing to thousands of overdose deaths, Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order Wednesday that said an opioid epidemic has created a “state of emergency” in Florida.

Scott's order, and a related “public health emergency” declaration by Surgeon General Celeste Philip, came as lawmakers look to increase criminal penalties related to the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl. It also came after calls across the state for the governor to declare an emergency because of deaths linked to drugs such as fentanyl and heroin.

“I know firsthand how heartbreaking substance abuse can be to a family because it impacted my own family growing up,” Scott said in a prepared statement. “The individuals struggling with drug use are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends and each tragic case leaves loved ones searching for answers and praying for help. Families across our nation are fighting the opioid epidemic and Florida is going to do everything possible to help our communities.”

Scott's office said the order will allow Florida to immediately draw down $27 million in federal money that can be used for prevention, treatment and recovery services. Philip's order authorizes pharmacists to dispense the drug naloxone to emergency responders. Naloxone can be used to block the effects of opioids and prevent overdoses.

The Department of Health, the Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement also have held a series of workshops this week across the state about issues related to opioid use.

A key lawmaker Wednesday praised Scott for taking action on the issue.

“He wanted to identify that the crisis was real, and get some evidence and gather some opinions from people and not go out half-cocked on it,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who said he had met with Scott's staff about the opioid issue. “So, that's what he did. I think the important thing is that he has done it.”

The Senate on Wednesday passed a bill (HB 477) that would impose tough criminal penalties on people who traffic in fentanyl, which is often mixed with drugs such as heroin and is one of the causes of increased overdose deaths.

The bill, in part, would create a first-degree felony offense for trafficking in fentanyl and similar drugs, with trafficking defined as involving four grams or more. The bill still needs House approval because senators made a change that would give judges some discretion in sentencing people convicted of fentanyl trafficking.

During a debate Tuesday, senators described the effects of fentanyl on their communities.

“This is a fire out of control that is deadly,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who son is a sheriff's deputy.

Funding sought for pilot program

Health officials are asking for $1.5 million to fight the opioid epidemic in Northeast Florida through a pilot program designed by Dr. Raymond Pomm.

The three-phase program would focus on helping patients fully recover, and former drug users said the program will help people they know struggling with addiction.

“I have been with the Opioid Task Force since Day 1, and each meeting, I see a little more progress,” said Richard Preston, who has been drug free for 12 years.

The program was described during a meeting Wednesday that included a packed room of doctors, counselors and former drug users and representatives from the Department of Health, the Department of  Children and Families and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

If funding is available, the program could begin by June or July, officials said.

“There are a lot of mothers and just people who don’t even have children that need this help, just families in general,” said Tiffany Kerns, who graduated from a recovery program.

Local officials respond to crisis

In 2015, there were 45 heroin related deaths in North Florida. In Jacksonville, the number of 911 calls for suspected opioid overdoses tripled in the last two years. And in 2015, there were more than 10,700 emergency room visits attributed to opioid use in the state of Florida.

"It's kind of a perfect storm," said Susan Pitman, executive director of Drug Free Duval. "We had the pill mill problem back in 2009, 10, and 11. And very, very smartly, we shut those down."

MORE: Heroin overdoses skyrocketing in every Duval County ZIP code

Pitman said that was the beginning of an unintended consequence. People were becoming addicted to heroin and prescription opioids like hydrocodone and fentanyl.

Pitman said educating children, adults, and even health care professionals about opioid abuse is key.

A big part of prevention is proper disposal, utilizing a Deterra bag. Unused pills are placed inside the bag, which is then filled with water. After 30 seconds, the back is resealed and the contents inside will be dissolved.

Pitman also said prevention can begin in the doctor's office and the pharmacy.

She said there should be screening for patients to determine if they could be at risk for developing addictions to opioid medications. Patients should also be encouraged to look for healthier ways to cope with pain, like physical therapy.

Pitman said for that to work, health insurance companies need to be on board.

"Instead of having to pay $100 for a physical therapy session, when you can get 100 oxys for $25, maybe it should shift," Pittman said. "It should be $25 for the therapy and $100 for the oxys."

To learn more about opioid use and the effect its having here in Jacksonvill follow the link to the website for Drug Free Duval.

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