The number of Pasco County babies born into drug addition nearly tripled over the past two years and, on a per-capita basis, Pasco is now the statewide leader in babies going through withdrawal because of the mothers' drug abuse.
The sad statistic from the state Agency for Health Care Administration, contained in a Pasco County Health Department grant application, illustrates the far-reaching carnage of the prescription drug abuse epidemic. It also helps explain why Attorney General Pam Bondi wants a legislative task force to investigate the cost of treatment and possible prevention of so-called neonatal withdrawal syndrome.
In 2010, 147 babies in Pasco were born addicted to drugs, compared to just 50 two years earlier. The Pasco newborns represent more than 10 percent of the cases of neonatal drug withdrawal across the state.
The alarming data follow the trend of Pasco having one of the highest per-capita rates of oxycodone deaths in Florida and Pasco-Pinellas leading the state in the number of people fatally overdosing on the most lethal prescriptions drugs, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
Recommendations from a state task force, if created by the Legislature in 2012, are more than a year away, which leaves a patchwork system as the short-term response. In Pasco, the state Health Department is seeking a $50,000 private grant to begin educating women in jail, at-risk teenagers at the PACE Center for Girls and others about the dangers of drug use during pregnancy. The goal is to cut the number of addicted babies born in Pasco County by 20 percent by the end of 2012.
Legislatively, the Pasco County Commission on Tuesday approved permanent rules for pain-management clinics in an attempt to try to separate legitimate medical facilities from the unscrupulous cash-payment pill mills that triggered much of the illegal drug activity. The registration and conditional use requirements governing parking, location and security and the $2,500 annual fee will replace the temporary rules that are to expire in January.
Likewise, the commission last month smartly approved a county budget that provides new personnel to the Pasco Sheriff's Office to target drug abuse on the street and to investigate organized traffickers, while also adding health-care personnel at the jail because of the high rate of addiction among inmates.
On the state level, the prescription drug data base, giving physicians the ability to access a patient's the prescription drug history, went into full effect Monday. The system, however, is voluntary, so physicians shouldn't be shy about using the tool to promote patient and public safety. The database is intended to curb so-called doctor shopping by patients seeking multiple scripts for prescription painkillers.
All are welcome and necessary steps in the fight against prescription drug abuse that claims nearly eight lives every day in Florida. While the attention in the immediate past has been on doctors, law officers, and state and county regulators, the escalating number of neonatal addiction cases shows that the focus must not exclude young women and their unborn children.