With plenty of pomp, Gov. Rick Scott came to Boca Raton on Monday to ceremoniously sign a high-profile bill designed to prevent Floridians from getting hooked on opioids.
If only this new law were anywhere near as powerful as the addictions it hopes to combat.
Although the governor last year declared a public health emergency, the reality is that he has done far too little to attack a crisis tied to 5,725 deaths in his state last year: 15 deaths a day. His declaration made it possible to immediately draw $27 million from a federal grant for some prevention, treatment and recovery-support services but didn’t do much beyond that.
Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay is right in calling the just-signed law “a small step in the right direction.” Disappointingly, “it falls woefully short of meeting the demand for services our families need.”
The $53.6 million package ($65 million, when additional money from the budget is added in) is simply no match for the need.
It provides, for example, $14.6 million for 53 additional residential treatment beds and follow-up services across Florida. That seems hardly adequate, even if all of it were to go to our county. A report prepared for the County Commission last year found that 24,000 uninsured people in Palm Beach County could use detoxification and residential-treatment services, but only 7 percent have received any.
Last year, Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue spent $205,000 just on Narcan, the drug used by first responders to treat opioid overdoses.
In addition, said McKinlay, the county spent “more than $6 million in Fire-Rescue costs and set aside $3 million to expand treatment options, medical examiner staff and to fund a drug czar position to help stop a crisis that has led to more than 10,000 overdoses and claimed more than 1,200 lives in the county alone in less than two years.”
That’s only a fraction of the crisis’ costs, of course. Cities like Delray Beach and West Palm Beach with separate fire-rescue operations are running up their own bills. Hospitals are treating torrents of overdoses, addicted babies and intravenous drug complications. Law enforcement is stretching resources. Families are being destroyed. And on and on.
State lawmakers passed the newly signed legislation unanimously on March 9, the final full day of the annual legislative session. And yes, it does some good things.
For one, it forces doctors in most cases to limit prescriptions for drugs to treat severe pain to three-day supplies. That could be a strong step toward preventing addictions in the first place.
Another notable part of the law requires physicians to check with a statewide database before prescribing or dispensing controlled substances.
The philosophy behind the law is a good one. Instead of looking at this drug crisis as one of arrests and jail, it is taking a prevention and treatment approach. The problem is, it takes money to get programs going on a wide enough scale to make them effective. And the money is lacking.
Even Attorney General Pam Bondi said in January that $53 million to fund the war on opioids would be “a great start” but far from enough. “In an $80 billion budget, that’s nothing,” she remarked.
And note: More than $27 million of the $53 million is federal funds, the second half of the grant that Florida began using last year.
Lest we forget, Scott was late to the opioid fight. It took weeks of public pressure last year to get him to declare a public health emergency. His reluctance was reminiscent of 2011 when, during the height of the pill mill crisis, he scrapped the Office of Drug Control, leaving no state agency to coordinate a statewide response to this day. That same year, he proposed eliminating the prescription drug monitoring program he has just signed into law, saying then that “I don’t think it’s the state’s responsibility.”
Perhaps most important, Scott also led the state’s resistance to expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a prime funding source for substance abuse treatment.
McKinlay was an early voice last year urging Scott to declare a public health emergency. But now, she says, “During his administration, he made the problem worse by failing to take quick action and cutting the necessary resources.”
Scott’s second and final term ends in January. Whoever takes over must take this epidemic far more seriously. And voters must make clear that they’ll accept nothing less.
A ‘small step in right direction’ falls ‘woefully short ’ — Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay