Editorial: Statewide heroin crisis requires stronger state response


By every measure, Florida is in the grip of a staggering public health emergency. Its shorthand name is heroin. And in Palm Beach County it is an epidemic more lethal than car crashes or homicides.

This year has seen 406 opioid-related overdose deaths through October, according to a grand jury report released this month. “Oh my God, it is the definition of a public health emergency,” Dr. Jean Malecki, former head of the Palm Beach County Health Department, tells The Palm Beach Post, which has documented the crisis for more than a year.

Yet in Tallahassee, where lawmakers are gearing up for the 2017 session, little to nothing is said about declaring a public health emergency. In Massachusetts, by contrast, the governor did just that in 2014, releasing $20 million in emergency money for treatment in the Bay State.

We need a similar robust response here.

Perhaps Florida’s top officials are sleepwalking through this crisis because they believe it is strictly a regional matter: a problem for South Florida, which has become the epicenter of a mushrooming addiction-recovery industry. If so, they are deluding themselves. As the Post’s Pat Beall and Mike Stucka showed conclusively on Sunday, the surge in heroin-related overdoses and deaths reaches every corner of the state.

In in the first nine months of 2015, the epidemic cost Florida hospitals $1.1 billion – a figure that has more than doubled since 2010 and is still rising. Those are charges for heroin and opium overdoses, addicted babies, and intravenous drug use complications, including hepatitis C when linked to drug use.

These are charges that hit all of us. Taxpayers were charged $3.9 billion for hospitals’ services to the heroin-stricken from 2010 to 2015 through programs like Medicare and Medicaid. And when a patient is not fully covered by those, or is otherwise uninsured, the hospital shifts the costs to insurance companies and to other patients who do pay their bills.

The public pays in other ways, too. Look at the sharp increase in emergency calls for Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue crews rushing to respond to overdoses: 1,400 in Delray Beach alone, this year.

Yes, this looks to be a tough budget year in Tallahassee. Lawmakers, told by state economists to expect a $1.3 billion shortfall in 2018, keep warning us to expect little in new spending. But the facts of this epidemic are too striking to ignore.

When the Zika virus hit this year, infecting 194 pregnant women to date, Gov. Rick Scott authorized $61.2 million in emergency state spending. In 2011, when an estimated seven Floridians were dying per day of OxyContin overdoses, the Legislature declared a public health emergency and Scott endorsed it.

Today, more than six Floridians a day are believed, on average, to be dying each day with heroin, morphine or fentanyl in their systems. That is the definition of an emergency.

Yet the message isn’t getting through. The Health Care District of Palm Beach County recently learned it lost out on a $10 million grant for substance-abuse and mental-health services because, as one regional health official said, the state Department of Children and Families wasn’t “completely aware of how serious the situation is.”

While the grant writers deserve much of the blame for that, it doesn’t change the fact that Florida lawmakers must assign a higher budget priority to this crisis. The addiction epidemic must be met with imaginative and aggressive strategies for medical and psychological treatment, as well as law enforcement.

This will cost money. But that cost will be minor compared with the human and financial toll that keep mounting as this crisis grows.



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