TALLAHASSEE — All four full-time employees working in the governor's Office of Drug Control were told Friday by Gov.-elect Rick Scott's team that their services will no longer be needed after he takes office next month.
A spokesman for Scott, who has pledged to cut waste in state government, said most likely the duties of the office, which now reports directly to the governor, will be turned over to the departments of Health and Law Enforcement.
"We're taking a look at that," said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess. "I don't think we're going to have cocaine bales stacking up on the docks of Miami if we close this office."
But people fighting Florida's prescription pill epidemic are concerned.
"The question is, what's the plan for keeping a laser focus on that issue?" said Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.
Office director Bruce Grant said eliminating the four positions will save the state less than $500,000.
"We've got a heck of a problem in this state with drugs. And it's not going to be over any time soon," Grant said. "What you're saying by getting rid of this office is that's not a priority. And that's a mistake. Because it is a priority. We all have been connected to somebody with a substance abuse problem, and we all know how devastating it can be for a family and for our economy."
Gov. Jeb Bush created the Office of Drug Control in 1999, and it's authorized by state statutes. Among other things, the office surveys Florida schoolchildren on their drug and alcohol habits, provides guidance on drug policy, coordinates work among state agencies to address substance abuse issues and advises the governor on seaport security as it relates to drug smuggling.
The office has also secured grant funding and donations to pay for the state's still-to-be-implemented prescription drug monitoring program, intended to curb pill mill activity.
Lora Brown, a pain management physician who is part of a task force working to get the drug monitoring program running, credited the Office of Drug Control with helping get legislation approving the program passed. Like Fontaine, she worries the fight against prescription drug and other substance abuse will stall if the office is eliminated.
"This issue is not a law issue. It's not a health issue. It's an issue that incorporates all those areas. It's a complex issue and needs an integrated, coordinated solution," she said. "I'm very disappointed in the fact that this office has been dissolved. My concern is this issue is not going to get the attention it needs."
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the office was critical to his efforts to get the prescription drug monitoring bill passed.
"They're the ones that pretty much came to us and said we need to get this done," he said.
With no state funding for prescription monitoring, Fasano wonders how the program will keep operating without the Office of Drug Control to raise money for it.
"This state must have an entity that does nothing but focus on solving this crisis. The Department of Health, although a very good department with well-intentioned, hard-working individuals, they have many other responsibilities," he said. "There is no group more dedicated to this one issue and saving lives than the Office of Drug Control."
Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he understands Scott's desire to trim the state budget, but this is one area that should be untouched.
"This policy may appear to make sense now," he said in a prepared statement. "But it may cost more cents down the road."
Fontaine said a recent study showed that substance abuse has a $43 billion negative impact on the state economy due to loss of job productivity, and costs associated with hospital and emergency room visits and incarceration. Fontaine said about 65 percent of Florida inmates have substance abuse problems.
Meanwhile, a 2009 Florida Department of Law Enforcement study concluded seven people in Florida die every day due to prescription drug abuse.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.