Renewed push to declare heroin a crisis: Governor hears from Democrats


Citing out-of-control heroin-related hospital costs first detailed by The Palm Beach Post, Florida Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and the Florida Senate Democratic Caucus are urging Gov. Rick Scott to declare the heroin crisis a public health emergency.

Heroin and fentanyl, wrote Braynon, are “wreaking widespread devastation, not only from the ravages of addiction, but the resurgence of deadly diseases associated with drug abuse.” And to date, he said, “There is … no effective state bulwark in place to stop it.”

The caucus’ call comes roughly two weeks after Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay sent Scott a letter also asking him to declare an emergency.

For now, no one in the governor’s office is publicly pushing for declaring a public health emergency, as the Democratic governor of Massachusetts did in 2014, releasing $20 million in emergency money for treatment in his state.

Still, the state senators’ move “is a step in the right direction,” said McKinlay, one of the first elected officials to respond to Post coverage of local heroin deaths.

She points out that the caucus members come “from Tallahassee to Jacksonville to Tampa, Orlando and South Florida” — a statewide consensus reflecting the epidemic’s statewide toll, as reported by The Post in December.

For instance, in 27 northern counties stretching from Jacksonville west to the edge of the Panhandle, heroin-related hospital charges topped $171 million, a 163 percent hike since 2010, The Post found in its examination of hospital records.

That was pennies on the dollar: As of October 2015, heroin-related hospital charges in Florida reached more than $1.1 billion a year or $4.1 million a day.

Further, over six years, taxpayers were saddled with $3.9 billion in hospital bills, and Florida’s perennially cash-strapped Medicaid program was responsible for $1.9 billion of that.

Despite both the soaring health care bills and rising death toll from the crisis, McKinlay said a meeting last week with Scott staffers left her “pretty disappointed.

“There didn’t seem to be any recognition of how urgent this crisis is, as (Post) reporting and the numbers themselves have shown.’’

Democrats have limited power in Florida, where the governor is Republican and both houses of the Legislature have strong Republican majorities. McKinlay, a former legislative liaison for Palm Beach County, is a Democrat.

There is a Florida precedent for declaring a drug epidemic a public health emergency. Scott instructed the head of the Florida Department of Health to do just that in 2011 to shut down the so-called “pill mills” in Palm Beach and Broward counties. There, doctors handed out prescriptions for oxycodone and other powerful painkillers to anyone with an ache and cash.

The declaration in 2011 came at a time when roughly seven people a day were dying in Florida from an overdose of oxycodone, the drug of choice at pill mills.

In Florida in 2015, roughly six people a day were dying with heroin, fentanyl or illicit morphine in their systems — the trinity of drugs at the heart of the epidemic.

Doctors, treatment counselors and others on the front lines of treatment all believe 2016 was worse.

In 2015, Palm Beach County recorded more than 350 fatal overdoses from all drugs, and of those, 216 died after using heroin, fentanyl or illicit morphine, The Post found in an analysis of medical examiner records and police reports. Right now, there is no count of how many of 2016’s fatal overdoses were heroin-related, but overall drug deaths have already eclipsed 2015: the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner estimates more than 500 died from an overdose in 2016.

The statewide numbers are equally grim. Heroin deaths reported by state medical examiners grew by 80 percent from 2014 to 2015, the most recent statewide figures available. Morphine and fentanyl deaths also rose by double digits.

Even so, said McKinley, “There didn’t seem to be any urgency by the governor’s staff to address the issue.

“But I’m not giving up.”

Billion-dollar epidemic

One every two days: Average number of Florida patients treated for heroin overdoses in 2011.

One every 90 minutes: Average number of Florida patients treated for heroin overdoses in late 2015.

$1.1 billion: Florida hospital charges tied to the heroin epidemic for the first nine months of 2015.

$5.7 billion: All Florida hospital charges tied to the heroin epidemic between 2010 and late 2015.

$2.1 billion: Amount of all Florida hospital charges tied to the heroin epidemic in which Medicaid was the primary payer.

$967 million: Florida hospital charges for babies born addicted between 2010 and 2015.

$826 million: Amount where Florida Medicaid was the primary payer for babies born addicted between 2010 and 2015.

SOURCE: Palm Beach Post analysis of Florida Agency for Health Care Administration hospital limited data set.



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