Does legislation designed to tackle opioid crisis go far enough?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott holds ceremonial bill signing for HB 477

By Jake Stofan - Tallahassee corespondent

Provided by Gov. Rick Scott's office

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott spent Tuesday touting new legislation that would increase penalties for opioid dealers, but advocates said the lawmakers failed to address a key issue: treatment for addicts.

Ten Floridians die each day from opioids. Florida ranks 49th for per-capita spending on mental health.

Scott hosted a ceremonial bill signing at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office for HB 477, which creates new penalties and enhances existing penalties relating to synthetic opioid drugs, including fentanyl.

The bill, along with the Public Health Emergency that Scott directed in May, will help communities fight the national opioid epidemic, according to a news release from Scott’s office. Scott was joined by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Michael Gauger, Senate President Joe Negron, and local law enforcement officers.

But this year, lawmakers cut mental health and addiction services by more than $11 million.

“Those communities are now going to have to figure out, how do they reconfigure to still try and accomplish that task?” said Mark Fontaine, of the Florida Health Behavioral Association. “But obviously, with 40 percent less money, they won’t be able to live up to that goal and expectation set.”

Community treatment centers are already experiencing high volumes of patients, advocates say. In many cases, there aren’t enough beds or resources to help everyone who comes through the doors.

Lawmakers did increase spending for law enforcement officials to fight the crisis. And penalties for dealers were also increased.
Mental health advocates said without more addiction services, they’re fighting a losing battle.

The Florida Council for Community and Mental Health said the state can’t arrest its way out of the problem.
"If we had an adequate infrastructure in our communities, through our community mental health centers, (then) those folks who would get picked up (could) go into a recovery-oriented environment,” said Jane Johnson, of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health. “They could get the support that they need so they could come out on the other side and contribute to society.”

Many drug addicts deal with addiction as well as mental health issues. So until the state prioritizes services to help with underlying issues, nothing will change, advocates say.
“We have to change our view of that and look at it as a disorder, like diabetes or cancer,” said Melanie Brown-Woofter, of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.

In addition to the $11 million cut this year, $21 million in federal funding ends after two years, putting the state in an even more precarious situation. The federal funding does help with medication-assisted treatment, but doesn’t go toward detox or residential treatment facilities.

“Our law enforcement officers are working every day to stop dangerous individuals and drug trafficking, and are often the first to respond to what may be heartbreaking situations,” Scott said. “I was proud to ceremonially sign this important legislation today alongside these heroes as we fight together on behalf of the families impacted by substance abuse. We will keep working with our local, state and federal partners to help our law enforcement and communities combat the national opioid epidemic.”

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