Door remains open to Florida declaration of opioid health crisis

Florida Surgeon General Celeste Philip said Tuesday she has not ruled out declaring a public health emergency for the opioid epidemic.

At the same time, officials announced the state would be getting a two-year, $54 million federal grant to attack the opioid crisis. At least $17 million would go toward medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone and Suboxone, which curb addicts’ cravings.

Philip, who is among high-ranking state officials on a four-stop, three-day listening tour ordered by the governor, said a declaration of a public health emergency must be linked to an action plan.

The listening tour, which began Monday in West Palm Beach, has been criticized for its brevity and failure to include Gov. Rick Scott or Attorney General Pam Bondi, who announced the tour at an April news conference.

However, hearing how the hardest hit communities are dealing with the crisis will help in creating a plan, Philip said at the tour’s second stop Tuesday morning in Palmetto near Bradenton in hard-hit Manatee County.

“Nothing is off the table,” Philip said.

Asked why she quickly issued a public health emergency when mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus were discovered in Florida, she said it was because it was easier to draft a plan to prevent the spread of the virus: Kill mosquitoes that carry it.

Also, the state conducted workshops before declaring a Zika emergency, she pointed out.

The opioid crisis is much more complex, she said: “We’re dealing with two different kinds of situations.”

Later Tuesday in Orlando, the first 90 minutes of the scheduled 90-minute meeting was dominated by a panel discussion involving local and state officials. They focused on action taken by Orange County officials based on a county heroin task force.

Officials extended the meeting an additional half-hour to give about a dozen people a chance to speak for two minutes each.Orlando attorney Kendra Jowers questioned why Gov. Scott hadn’t acted.

“When is the governor actually going to do the right thing?” Jowers asked. “When Scott came on board he was dragged kicking and screaming into approving the prescription drug monitoring database,” which helped end the state’s oxycodone-fueled prescription pill crisis.

But Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said progress depends on local initiatives. “We don’t have all the answers in Tallahassee,” he said.

Local law enforcement officials told their state counterparts that more than 1,100 officers carry Narcan, the heroin-overdose reversal drug, because 40 percent of the time they get to the scene of an overdose before paramedics.

“We can’t change a life unless we first save it,” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said.

The grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration comes through the federal Comprehensive Addication and Recovery Act, signed by President Obama in July 2016. Some of Florida’s money also would be aimed at helping babies born to addicted mothers.

In her comments in West Palm Beach and Palmetto, Philip, a doctor, emphasized the need to educate physicians and medical students about the hazards of prescribing opioids and alternative protocols to manage pain.

On Monday, the tour was greeted by protesters and a crowd of about 250. Tuesday’s meetings drew about 100 people each and remained relatively quiet. The final stop on the listening tour is today in Jacksonville.

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