TAMPA — Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi wants to protect the youngest victims of the state's prescription drug abuse epidemic: babies born to addicted mothers.
On Friday, she and Senate President Mike Haridopolos hosted a roundtable discussion with top officials from BayCare Health System to discuss the enormity of the problem and what can be done to stop it.
How bad is it? At St. Joseph's Women's Hospital, where the roundtable was held, 15 to 20 percent of the babies admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit are treated for withdrawal from prescription drugs like oxycodone, hospital officials said.
Statewide, an estimated 1,300 babies were treated for withdrawal in 2010, a 30 percent increase from the previous year.
"We've got to stop this," said Bondi, who has made tackling the prescription drug abuse epidemic a top priority.
She championed legislation this past session that tightens reporting requirements to a prescription drug monitoring database, including increased penalties for doctors who overprescribe narcotics and steps toward a dosage cap on dispensing for pharmacies.
Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican, hopes those measures will decrease the number of people — pregnant women included — who are addicted to drugs like oxycodone, methadone and Xanax.
But Bondi said more needs to be done to help expectant mothers, many of whom don't realize the problems that prescription drugs can have on their unborn children.
Bondi said she would partner with St. Joseph's to start a national task force aimed at educating women and others of the dangers. Babies born with prescription drugs in their system can suffer from stiff limbs, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors and constant crying.
In some cases, women are treated during pregnancy — usually with methadone — which can ease or eliminate their craving for other drugs and help save their baby's life. Merely going cold turkey could actually kill the baby.
Babies born with prescription drugs in their systems often spend the first weeks of their lives in hospital neonatal intensive care units getting weaned off their addiction. Mindy Young, a nurse and manager of St. Joseph's unit, said it's a painful process that can take up to 30 days.
"This is modern-day heroin," said Haridopolos, who was accompanied by his wife, Stephanie, a family practice doctor in Melbourne. "The key is increasing awareness of the impact of these powerful narcotics on newborns."
Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330.