Editorial: New sober-house laws are good, but we need bigger plan

    Updated July 12, 2017
TALLAHASSEE — At an April press conference, in the state’s first public acknowledgement of the opioid crisis, Gov. Rick Scott, left and Attorney General Pam Bondi, holding a NARCAN nasal spray dispenser, announce plans to lower the costs of life-saving medicine for overdose victims, raise more awareness to the epidemic and crack down on rogue sober homes. (Photo by Florida Channel)

Thanks to the persistence of local legislators and Palm Beach County’s Sober Home Task Force, Florida now has the legal means to hit fraudulent sober homes with newfound power.

It’s a significant milestone.

But the addiction crisis keeps deepening. So we need to think bigger.

RELATED: Palm Beach County considers suing drug companies over opioid crisis

The new law is a great step forward: Sober-home telemarketers have to register with the state — a curb against patient brokering. There’s a clearer legal definition of kickbacks. Owners, directors and clinical supervisors of treatment centers must undergo background checks.

The Department of Children and Family Services will now oversee licensed centers and can visit the centers unannounced. Though sober homes aren’t forced to certify with the state, there’s stronger incentive for them to do so: uncertified sober homes can’t get referrals from licensed treatment centers.

And now the Office of Statewide Prosecutor may pursue cases of patient-brokering, a crime now punishable under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.

A four-year effort — pushed across the finish line by State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s task force and the leadership of state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, and state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth — culminated with Gov. Rick Scott’s signing the bill on June 26. It became law July 1.

The legislation is more than welcome in a county that has been beset by an appalling sub-plot of the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic: an invasion of corrupt operators into South Florida’s addiction-recovery industry, exploiting the insurance system and the people they are supposed to help, even encouraging patients to relapse to incur more profit for themselves.

Scott, who at last declared a statewide emergency on May 3 after months of public outcry, just extended that public health emergency for another 60 days. The two orders allow the state to quickly draw down $54 million in federal funds for drug treatment. Other new laws toughen sentences for carrying fentanyl or carfentanil and require doctors to promptly log prescriptions into a statewide database.

RELATED: Stiffer penalties for fentanyl possession signed into law

This is not a time for officials to take a bow, however. It’s time to use these fresh tools and crack down. And it’s time to ask, what do we tackle next?

Because this plague is getting worse. Opioids, mainly fentanyl and heroin, have killed 2,664 people in Florida in the first six months of this year – an average of 14 people per day. At this rate, fatal overdoses will outpace last year’s count by 36 percent.

In Palm Beach County alone, overdoses spiked to 311 in the first five months of this year, 20 percent more than the first five months of 2016.

“We need a master plan for the state,” says Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association. As other states have done from Maryland to Utah, Scott should summon top officials, including the surgeon general and attorney general, to create a statewide strategy for facing all aspects of this epidemic, from education and prevention to law enforcement and treatment.

That means pinpointing problems and then putting up money to attack them.

Scott would do well to emulate Palm Beach County, which, in the short span of three months this spring, committed $1 million to local treatment programs after commissioning consultants to analyze the problem and make recommendations. The governor conducted a quick listening tour on the opioid crisis in April, stopping in West Palm Beach, Orlando, Bradenton and Jacksonville. How about distilling those findings into an action plan?

Meantime, Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio should add their voices to those other Republican governors and senators who warn against such congressional proposals as gutting Medicaid or removing substance abuse or mental-health disorders from “essential health benefits” for individually purchased insurance. Those rejections of Obamacare would be disastrous in the midst of a rising addiction crisis that claimed at least 59,000 lives in overdoses nationwide in 2016 alone.

That’s more American lives than were lost in the Vietnam War. It’s five times more Americans than are killed each year in gun homicides.

The pace of destruction is stepping up. And so must our response.