The rate of Hernando County babies born into drug addiction is four times the state average. Just to the south, it is worse. On a per capita basis, Pasco County is the statewide leader in babies going through withdrawal because of the mothers' drug abuse.
The sad statistics shared this week with the Statewide Drug Policy Advisory Council showed Hernando County's rate of newborns treated for withdrawal stood at 26.88 per 1,000 births, more than four times the state average of 6.33. Only Pasco and Charlotte counties had numbers higher than Hernando and, just five years ago, the state averaged only 1 addicted baby per 1,000 births.
The numbers illustrate 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.
That isn't the only call for legislative action. This week, the Drug Policy Advisory Council, which includes Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, as a member, voted unanimously to emphasize funding for the prescription drug monitoring program — now financed by local forfeiture dollars — and to seek additional money in the next state budget for drug treatment programs.
That prescription drug database, giving physicians the ability to access a patient's prescription drug history, went into full effect less than three weeks ago and already is helping to uncover doctor shopping. The system, however, is voluntary, so physicians shouldn't be shy about using the tool to promote patient and public safety and to curtail the number of people seeking multiple prescriptions for powerful painkillers.
The recommendations Bondi seeks from the 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 to the newborn dilemma. Education can't be ignored. The state Health Department in Pasco is seeking a $50,000 private grant to begin educating women in jail, at-risk teenagers in school and others about the dangers of drug use during pregnancy. The goal is to cut the number of addicted babies born by 20 percent by the end of 2012.
On the law enforcement side, efforts continue to try to curb distribution of illegal pills. Tuesday, the Hernando Sheriff's Office shut down a pain management clinic in Spring Hill and charged its owner with practicing medicine without a license and a 70-year-old physician with aiding the deception. The clinic didn't dispense narcotics on site for cash-only payments, as most so-called pill mills do, but, in the words of Sheriff Al Nienhuis, the business still helped to drive the prescription drug epidemic and accompany property crimes.
These are welcome and necessary steps in the fight against prescription drug abuse that claims nearly eight lives every day in Florida. Although 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.