Pasco could soon get some extra help in fighting the prescription drug abuse problem that is gripping Florida.
The $70 billion state budget that lawmakers are set to adopt today includes $1 million for a one-year program aimed at treating drug addiction and educating doctors and parents about the dangers of pills that fall into the wrong hands.
A small portion of the money, $75,000, would go to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office for overtime costs related to policing drug abuse and to create public awareness materials. The rest of the award would go to Baycare Health Services for a campaign that includes the addition of detox beds at its New Port Richey facility.
"It's such a big problem in our state and in Pasco County in particular," said Doug Leonardo, executive director of Baycare Behavioral Health. "We seem to be unfortunately at the top of the line in a lot of categories that are bad."
An August report from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission shows Pasco and Pinellas leading the state in deaths linked to prescription drug overdoses. The report showed 2,710 deaths statewide in 2010, with 763 coming from those two counties.
Some experts say it's not clear whether Tampa Bay is significantly worse than other parts of Florida or whether medical examiners here are more diligent about recording such deaths. If the latter were true, the report masks a much deeper statewide problem.
Although the state budget includes the extra money for Pasco, it is not yet a done deal. It must still win approval from Gov. Rick Scott, who can strike individual items from the spending plan. Last year Scott vetoed a record $615 million, including three Pasco projects.
Scott's office has said the governor has not yet had time to review individual earmarks for local areas.
Rep. John Legg, the Port Richey Republican who secured the money, said his first phone call after the legislative session ends this week is to the governor's office. He is cautiously optimistic the program will win approval.
"The governor understands the severity of the prescription drug, pill mill problem in our state," he said. "And we have the data to show why our county needs it. We are the epicenter."
About a third of the money would go toward counseling and treatment. That includes reserving four detox beds at Baycare's New Port Richey facility for addicts who are unable to pay for the treatment. Currently, all such care occurs at seven beds at the Pasco County jail.
"It can make an immediate impact," Sheriff Chris Nocco said. Last year, Nocco successfully lobbied county commissioners for an extra $1.6 million to create 23 new positions, mostly to combat prescription drug abuse.
As increased law enforcement dries up the supply of illicit pills from doctors and pharmacies, Legg said, addicts are turning to other crimes such as burglarizing homes to find medication or cash to fuel their habit.
"What we're trying to do is find a smooth landing where these folks aren't out there committing crimes," he said.
Leonardo stressed that the treatment isn't for the stereotypical street criminal. "The problem is isn't really relegated to any particular socioeconomic demographic," he said. "It cuts across families of every type."
Other uses for the grant include training doctors to help spot patients who are lying about pain problems just to get more pills. Leonardo also hopes to start an education campaign aimed at parents about the dangers of leaving old prescriptions in their medicine cabinet.
Legg said the program is intended as a short-term solution, not an ongoing cost to the state. "We're hoping in one or two years we get past this prescription drug problem," he said.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.