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‘Finally,’ Scott declares opioid epidemic a public health emergency

Responding to months of public outcry, Gov. Rick Scott declared a public health emergency Wednesday in the fight against the opioid epidemic, a sea change in what had been a hands-off approach by state officials to a crisis that has killed thousands.

“Finally,” said Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Melissa McKinlay, who in February sent the first of nearly a dozen local requests for an emergency declaration in response to a November 2016 investigation by The Palm Beach Post into the epidemic’s toll.

“Today I feel relief — relief that the voices of so many were finally heard, for the pain of loss so many families have faced and to those struggling to overcome addition,’’ she said.

Scott’s order came hours after the last of four stops on a state “listening tour” in Florida’s hardest-hit regions. The first workshop, Monday in West Palm Beach, drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 people who demanded help and voiced disappointment that Scott didn’t attend.

The order allows the state “to immediately draw” from a two-year $54 million federal grant awarded to Florida on April 21 to provide prevention, treatment and recovery-support services.Without the order, it would have taken months for the state to distribute the money to local communities, Scott said.

“I know firsthand how heartbreaking substance abuse can be to a family because it impacted my own family growing up,” Scott said in a news release. “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.”

At an appearance in Riviera Beach Wednesday, Scott, who is expected to run for U.S. Senate in 2018, did not elaborate beyond his statement issued earlier in the day.

The declaration calls for Florida Surgeon General Celeste Philip to issue a standing order requiring pharmacists to have on hand for first responders the overdose reversal drug naloxone, also known as Narcan.

Some recovery advocates have said Scott should have issued the order sooner, following a lead taken by governors in Virginia, New Jersey, Alaska and other states to fight an epidemic that killed more than 33,000 people in 2015.

“Long seen as an issue local to Palm Beach County, this declaration brings to light that this epidemic is a human tragedy not just in the Palm Beach County area, but to the entire state,” said state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, a sponsor of legislation to crack down on fraudulent marketing and patient brokering in sober homes, which proliferate in the county.

At a March 30 appearance in Palm Beach County, when prompted by a Post reporter, Scott said he was reviewing an emergency declaration.

Less than two weeks later, he and Attorney General Pam Bondi announced plans for the “listening tour” workshops held this week in Palm Beach, Manatee, Orange and Duval counties. But they stopped short of declaring a public health emergency.

That listening tour was widely ripped by local recovery advocates, who said the families needed action from Scott, not more workshops. Philip, however, framed the listening tour in an interview with The Post as a necessary step toward declaring a health emergency and drafting a plan of action.

State Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, said he thinks Scott’s plan all along might have been to issue a declaration at some point after the workshops. But he said the West Palm Beach crowd might have played a role in the declaration being issued on Wednesday.

“I think (state officials) heard a lot of public outcry on how it has affected so many families. This is a good step,’’ said Willhite, who participated in Monday’s workshop.

Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein, whose city is on the epidemic’s front lines, said he hoped the state offers more details about what the declaration means for individual municipalities.

“The order is a great start. We’ve been asking for it for some time,” he said. “But how that money is going to be apportioned and earmarked remains to be seen.”

West Palm Beach City Commissioner Shanon Materio, a member of State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s sober-home task force, said Scott’s order “is an important step forward to ensure we have maximum resources to truly take on this crisis with meaningful and serious solutions. This crisis requires all of us to work hand in hand to save lives.”

Jupiter Vice Mayor Ilan Kaufer, who led a declaration request by the Palm Beach County League of Cities in March, said families of addicts deserve credit for being so outspoken on the issue.

“I am thankful to all the local leaders and community members who supported efforts to let the governor know how important this step was in saving lives,’’ he said.

Now comes the real work, said McKinlay, who became engaged in the issue after the overdose death of the daughter of her county aide Johnnie Easton. “I am hopeful that the governor’s direction … will open the door to a truly meaningful plan to fight this disease.”

The $54 million federal grant tackles the entire opioid crisis, including both heroin and prescription narcotics.

But the Department of Children and Families has to have legislative approval to spend the money — and that approval was tied up in the $83 billion state budget, which stalled Tuesday, forcing legislators to extend the session.

Scott’s emergency declaration allows DCF to begin spending the first year’s $27 million immediately. Much of the money is already earmarked: $17 million is expected to pay for expanding medication assisted treatment for people struggling to get sober.

The money also will go toward addressing the mushrooming problem of babies born in withdrawal from their mother’s opioid use. Many lawmakers said they believed in 2011 that a crackdown on pill mills and in particular prescription OxyContin sales would curb what is known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

Just the opposite: As heroin has supplanted prescription drugs, cases of NAS in Florida grew by 86 percent to nearly 2,500 between 2010 and 2015.

During those five years, NAS was a $967 million statewide problem for Florida hospitals, a Palm Beach Post investigation found, and almost all of it was billed to Medicaid, the state’s health program for the poor.

In fact, Florida’s already cash-strapped Medicaid — a perennial budget headache for the state — has been pummeled by the opioid crisis. During a period of six years, Medicaid was billed $2.9 billion of $5.7 billion in heroin-related Florida hospital charges. In just the four counties where the Scott-appointed panel held their hearings, drug treatment hospital billings totaled $1.2 billion between 2010 and the first three quarters of 2015.

And on the other side of the state, in Scott’s hometown of Naples, the Medicaid bill for heroin-related hospital treatment grew by 247 percent during that time.

Staff writer Lulu Ramadan contributed to this story.

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