NEW PORT RICHEY — The numbers can be staggering.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office treated nearly 2,000 inmates for opioid addiction in 2016.
Pasco County had the highest rate of methadone overdoses in Tampa Bay last year and tied for the third-highest per-capita rate in the state, according to state medical examiners. Methadone is a common treatment for opioid addiction. Overdoses totaled 330 in Florida in 2016, including 52 in Pasco and Pinellas counties.
That same report, the Medical Examiners Commission Drug Report, said prescription-drug-related deaths jumped 16.5 percent to 550 individuals in Pasco and Pinellas counties in 2016.
And the data for 2017 is worse, said Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Jenkins, who heads the department’s narcotics unit.
"We have found an alarming trend,’’ said Jenkins. "In 2017, drug overdoes actually exceeded the level during the height of the prescription pill epidemic.’’
The death rate could have been higher. Since March, Pasco Sheriff’s deputies successfully administered 40 doses of the antidote Narcan to stem opioid overdoses. That’s a pace of stopping a drug overdose twice every nine days.
It is a familiar fight.
Seven years ago, 763 people in Pasco and Pinellas counties died from prescription drug overdoses, a rate that led the state. Authorities fingered cash-only medical/prescription drug clinics, so-called pill mills, as the leading culprit.
This time around the focus is on prescription drug manufacturers and distributors. This battle is being waged, not in the streets or the criminal courts, but in civil dockets across the country. More than 100 states, counties and cities have filed lawsuits against prescription drug manufacturers, distributors and others over the past two years, according to a report by Governing.com. Pasco County commissioners say they want to do likewise.
Earlier this decade, to combat the pill mill epidemic, the Legislature established a drug-monitoring database to stem doctor shopping. Likewise, police agencies beefed up enforcement. In Pasco, Sheriff Chris Nocco hired a dozen officers for the narcotics unit, and three crime analysts and eight health-care workers for the jail. Nearly all of the duties for the new hires were tied to prescription drugs.
A significant problem, though, was the lack of treatment options for addicts.
"What Pasco County and the rest of Florida had was a bunch of opioid addicts who needed pills,’’ said attorney Jeff Gaddy of the Pensacola-based law firm of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty and Proctor P.A.
His firm is part of a legal team that has filed 81 lawsuits on behalf of 120 clients in 10 states. They allege that distributors flooded markets with opioid medications instead of properly monitoring usage and reporting suspicious activity to federal authorities, as required by law.
"Was Pasco done wrong by these companies? I absolutely believe so,’’ Nocco told commissioners in a Dec. 5 workshop. "Our citizens have paid so much financially because of, in my opinion, greed. The amount of pills that were on the street were ridiculous. This is an epidemic that didn’t have to happen.’’
In 2016, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office spent more than $5.4 million for contract health care services for a daily jail population that averaged 1,507 inmates. The cost increases as the inmate population grows. For the first two months of the current fiscal year, the daily jail population averaged 1,774 inmates.
It’s difficult to evaluate how much of the health care costs are attributable to substance abuse, the Sheriff’s Office acknowledged. "The indirect costs of drug use for the detention center are much greater than detoxification from the drug itself,’’ sheriff’s spokesman Kevin Doll said via email, noting inmates also are treated for deteriorating health conditions caused or exacerbated by drug use.
If successful, the government litigants likely would obtain funding for public health, education and law enforcement costs tied to combatting drug addictions. Pasco’s commissioners voiced support for joining the litigation, but took no vote. They will wait for a recommendation from the county attorney’s office.
During the workshop, commission Chairman Mike Wells Jr. said addiction has affected a member of his own family, but he declined to elaborate.
"It can happen to anybody,’’ he said afterward.