Ron DeSantis taps new Florida surgeon general, brings back drug office to fight opioid epidemic

Rivkees, a University of Florida professor and chair of its Child Health Research Institute, would fill the last major agency secretary post in DeSantis’ administration.
SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to members of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. He spoke to a joint session of lawmakers in Tallahassee.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to members of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. He spoke to a joint session of lawmakers in Tallahassee.
Published April 1, 2019|Updated April 1, 2019

As a long-running opioid epidemic continues to grip Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday he intends to devote renewed resources to the crisis, reviving an office dedicated to prevention efforts and naming his pick to lead the state’s public health agency.

In an executive order, DeSantis reestablished the Office of Drug Control to help promote statewide substance abuse prevention and created a statewide task force to develop a strategy for combating the uptick in opioid use. The office, which had been created under former Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999, had been cut by former Gov. Rick Scott shortly after he took office in 2011.

DeSantis also nominated Dr. Scott Rivkees, a University of Florida pediatrics professor, to become the state’s next surgeon general and secretary of the Department of Health, filling the last major secretary post in his new administration.

Dr. Scott Rivkees [UF Health]
Dr. Scott Rivkees [UF Health]

DeSantis, who made the announcements at the Sanford Fire Department Monday morning, cast Rivkees as a top-flight researcher and a “very, very accomplished” leader who would successfully helm the state’s public health arm through ongoing issues, including opioid use and mental illness.

DeSantis’ selection to lead the state’s Department of Health — which oversees everything from county health departments to the implementation and regulation of medical marijuana — had been several months in the making. One of the long delays in choosing a top physician for the state had been, some said, the governor’s insistence that they support his stance on smoking medical marijuana. The Legislature, at DeSantis’ urging, passed a bill last month, promptly signed into law, that would allow smokeable forms of the drug.

DeSantis had also said last week, at a mental health roundtable at the Governor’s Mansion, that he had been focused on finding a good fit for the department who would address a multitude of the state’s health issues.

In brief comments during the announcement, Rivkees noted that the smokeable medical marijuana ban had been lifted and that the state needed to ensure “these legislative initiatives are implemented properly.” He also said he would focus on several other public health challenges facing the agency.

Among those chief challenges will be the opioid crisis — and DeSantis’ announcement Monday was yet another way in which he has separated himself from his predecessor Scott.

Scott had made one of his first acts eliminating the Office of Drug Control in 2011 — at the time it was a four-person team with a measly $500,000 budget. It reported directly to the governor and had been critical to finding funding for Florida’s prescription drug monitoring program, but Scott said he got rid of the office to trim the state’s budget and that its functions were absorbed by other agencies.

But his decision happened at the height of the pill mill crisis and the beginning of the heroin epidemic, depriving Florida of a point person to lead its fight against opioids.

Bringing it back was the top recommendation in 2017 by Florida’s Drug Policy Advisory Council, made up of appointees from various state agencies. Other states that have been hit hard by the epidemic, such as Kentucky, have such offices. Scott declined to do so, despite a sharp increase in overdose deaths during his tenure.

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who was a state senator at the time the office was disbanded, said Floridians might see “almost immediately” the effects of bringing the program back.

“To see the Office of Drug Control wiped from the map … almost stopped in its place the good work it was doing,” he said. “I think it set us back years … To hear [DeSantis] is putting it back in place lets me know that he’s going to focus on the problems we have in the state.”

One of Rivkees’ first tasks will have to be filling several vacancies that remain at the top levels of the state Department of Health, including two of four top deputy secretary slots. Rivkees’ nomination, like all of the governor’s executive appointments, is subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

The top slot at the department has had tumultuous turnover in recent years.

Celeste Philip, the former surgeon general, was appointed formally by Gov. Scott in May 2016 after her predecessor, John Armstrong, was forced to step down after he and other Scott appointees were not confirmed by the Senate over a breakdown in relations over Medicaid expansion. Armstrong, a former medical officer at the University of South Florida and a surgeon in the U.S. Army, had been in the position since 2012.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporters Emily L. Mahoney and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.