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NEW: Scott, Bondi vow to get tough on Florida opioid crisis

In declaring for the first time that the state is caught up in the “national” opioid epidemic, Gov. Rick Scott and Pam Bondi announced plans Tuesday to hold public workshops to generate ideas in Palm Beach and three other counties but pledged no new major state resources to the fight.

However, Bondi pledged to go after sober homes, particularly in Palm Beach County. “We’re basically going to regulate them out of business,” she said of the homes where addicts go to stay clean.

She also announced an agreement with a pharmaceutical company to reduce the cost paid by first-responders and community organizations for life-saving drugs, such as Narcan, for overdose victims.

But aside from proposing $4 million in the state budget to help law enforcement fight the epidemic, Scott offered no new money for treatment and said he does not plan to declare a public health emergency, as many local leaders have requested as a way to free up money for treatment.

“In the end it’s always going to come down to that individual and that family is going to have to deal with this issue,” Scott said in response to a question.

“This is national epidemic. No short-term fix is going to help this problem,” said Bondi, who was recently appointed to a White House commission to combat drug addiction.

Both Bondi and Scott touted their success in curbing the prescription pill crisis in 2011, when oxycodone overdoses claimed seven lives a day. But that response came after the state surgeon general declared a public health emergency.

As of 2015, driven by epidemic-level increases in heroin and fentanyl overdoses, seven people a day were dying from overdoses in Florida again, state records show.

But asked whether such a declaration would be appropriate for the current drug crisis, Bondi stepped in to say that declarations might help for a “short-term” problem such as Zika, wildfires and hurricanes — but not a long-term, national drug epidemic.”

“This is a national ongoing, long-term epidemic and that’s why we are going to tackle this from a national level,” Bondi said.

That has not stopped governors in other states from declaring public health emergencies, partly to secure immediate money to expand treatment.

“While I appreciate the state’s action today to reduce the purchase price for Narcan and naloxone, I am sorely disappointed by Gov. Scott’s continued refusal to do what so many other states have done — declare a public health crisis,” Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said.

“The governor repeatedly said each family needs to take control first. I feel for all the families struggling to find resources to help their loved ones or who have buried their loved ones that read the governor’s statement.”

McKinlay, a Democrat, continued: “It is insulting to think they aren’t already doing that. Families need access to recovery resources and they need a leadership team in Tallahassee willing to fight just as hard for them as they are for families affected by Zika.”

Scott, a Republican, said the workshops — which will be hosted in Palm Beach, Manatee, Duval and Orange counties — also will inform local communities about “federal grant opportunities to work with the federal government to get helpful resources.”

Three state agencies, including the Department of Health, “will meet with communities to identify additional strategies to fight the rising opioid usage cases in Florida,” Scott said.

“This is not just in one community. It’s around our state. It’s around our nation.”

Bondi and Scott also endorsed proposed legislation that will add fentanyl and other deadly synthetic drugs to Florida’s drug trafficking laws, giving state prosecutors the ability to seek stronger sentences.

“These dealers are monsters and they need to be locked up for a long period of time,” Bondi said.

Another bill would create a certification program for sober homes and expand the authority of the Office of Statewide Prosecution to go after patient brokering offenses. Local prosecutors have made nearly two dozen arrests since October in a crackdown on patient brokering, a term that describes treatment centers paying sober home operators to bring them patients.

“You all know when we use the term ‘sober home’ that is not a legitimate drug treatment facility. Sober homes, they are horrible places. They are mainly based in the Palm Beach area and that’s where addicts are being taken in under the guise of getting the rehab they need and further addicted to drugs,” Bondi said.

“This sober home legislation will give the governor’s agencies the power to regulate them and put them out of business like we did with the pill mills.”

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who convened a grand jury on corruption in the drug-treatment industry, said he was pleased with the endorsement Scott and Bondi gave to legislation crafted by his office’s Sober Home Task Force.

Aronberg declined to comment on Scott’s plan to hold workshops about the opioid crisis and pointed to a letter he sent to the surgeon general on Monday about the crisis.

Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Palm Beach County Health Department, is working with Surgeon General Celeste Philip to schedule a workshop, department spokesman Tim O’Connor said.

Nearly 600 people died in Palm Beach County last year of opioid-related overdoses, a rate of one every 15 hours, nearly double the rate of murders and fatal car crashes. On March 30, Scott refused to rule out declaring a public health emergency when questioned by a Palm Beach Post reporter at a news conference in West Palm Beach focused on Zika.

“We have been through multiple drug epidemics but we’ve never seen a drug epidemic that has been killing people at this rate,” said Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Capt. A.J. O’Laughlin, who spoke at the news conference.

Maureen Mulroy Kielian, a recovery advocate and leader of Southeast Florida Recovery Advocates, said she watched the news conference and was “shocked” that Scott and Bondi were flanked by law enforcement and first responders but no public health officials.

Her group recently wrote letters to Scott and Dr. Philip with suggestions but have not received a response.

Scott’s proposal “will do nothing,” Kielian said, pointing out that a grand jury and two task forces have been addressing the crisis in Palm Beach County for more than a year.

“We’re done talking,” Kielian said. “We have solutions. We need elected officials to act.”

Scott spoke of the personal toll on his own family from drug addiction, specifying publicly for the first time that the family member who faced devastating addiction issues was his brother.

Scott did issue a statewide emergency declaration Tuesday — to help fight wildfires.

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