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Emergency rooms and jails the focus as Hillsborough task force takes on opioid epidemic

A bottle of OxyContin, an opioid prescription painkiller. Almost 300 people in Hillsborough County are expected to fatally overdose from opioids this year. The county's opioid task force is pushign a new $13.7 million plan to tackle the epidemic, which includes treatment and counseling for jail inmates and more availability of overdose antidotes. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File) LA411

TAMPA — The opioid addiction epidemic is expected to claim the lives of almost 300 people in Hillsborough County this year.

Those who don't overdose face an increased risk of addiction to drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

Now, the county's Opioid Task Force is proposing a $13.7 million fix to tackle the epidemic in Hillsborough, which it says will lower the number of victims and reduce the high cost of treating them.

The plan focuses on two areas where the opioid crisis is acutely felt: emergency rooms, where overdose patients arrive, and jails, where addicted inmates have to detox.

It also proposes an education program, expanded addiction treatments and more support for recovering addicts. It will include efforts to reduce the use of opioid painkillers and more availability of Narcan, an overdose antidote.

The proposed fix is expensive.

Most of the money — around $10 million —would come from the county's existing half-penny sales tax for indigent healthcare. About $600,000 would come from the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network. Grants will be sought for the balance from federal and state funds earmarked to tackle the crisis.

Commissioner Sandy Murman, who leads the task force, will ask fellow commissioners Wednesday to sign off on the plan, which was developed over nine months. She learned firsthand the grief caused by the epidemic when her sister, Linda Bowers, became addicted to opioids and committed suicide in 2015.

"This has become such a huge problem in Hillsborough County" Murman said. "Nine out of 10 people who need drug treatment are not getting it."

Addicted inmates would be enrolled in a "step-down unit," giving them addiction counseling and other social services for up to 30 days after release from jail in an effort to prevent them from offending and using again.

Treatments for inmates could include vivitrol, an alternative to methadone that is injected once a month to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

In emergency rooms, treatment and addiction services will be provided for overdose victims.

There will also be more medical assistance for babies born addicted to drugs. In 2016, Hillsborough reported 579 babies were born addicted — the most among Florida's 67 counties, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.

The prevention part of the plan would push to increase the availability of Narcan, which counters overdoses by quickly removing opioids from the receptors in the brain that regulate breathing. It is already being carried by first responders and some law enforcement agencies.

A standing order issued by the state requires pharmacies to issue the drug to law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians. It can also be obtained on request if people want to have it on hand for a family member they consider at risk.

RELATED: Tampa Bay cops take on new duty saving lives threatened by drug overdose

But an analysis by the task force found that not all pharmacies stock the drug and some will only order it on request, said Cindy Grant, executive director of the Hillsborough County Anti-drug Alliance.

Cost is another problem with prices ranging from $16.95 to $260, she said.

"It's all over the place," Grant said. "There needs to be some way to track this and let people know where to get it."

Hillsborough has already taken steps to tackle opioid addiction

In 2010, it enacted an ordinance to eliminate so-called "pill-mills," clinics that dole out opioids.

It has also launched a jail diversion program for addicts and earlier this year joined the state and about 1,000 communities nationwide that are suing the manufacturers of drugs like OxyContin and Percocet.

RELATED: 'Pill-spill': Hillsborough officials announce details of opioid lawsuit

But the crackdown has seen users switch to heroin and fentanyl, often illegally manufactured, to feed their addiction, Murman said.

The task force has set targets including a 20 percent reduction in the number of emergency room deaths from overdoses and a 15 percent reduction in the number of people re-arrested on drug charges. Reducing addiction to opioids could reduce medical costs in Hillsborough emergency rooms and clinics by as much as $12 million per year, the task force said.

"We know that for every dollar we spend on treatment," Murman said, "we will save $7 in criminal costs and $4 in healthcare costs."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.