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  1. Florida Politics

Romano: Florida's opioid epidemic gets lost in the legislative shuffle

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, pushed for more funding to fight the opioid crisis this legislative session. But there is no more money to fund more beds, detox centers, outpatient services and case management. He'll try again in 2019. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, pushed for more funding to fight the opioid crisis this legislative session. But there is no more money to fund more beds, detox centers, outpatient services and case management. He'll try again in 2019. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Mar. 10, 2018

In May of last year, Gov. Rick Scott declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

In December, with data showing fatal overdoses jumping 35 percent, the Surgeon General said it necessitated the reinstatement of the Office of Drug Control.

In January, Attorney General Pam Bondi called for more funds from the Legislature.

And today, the opioid epidemic seems almost to be on the back burner.

How did this happen?

When the legislative session began nine weeks ago, solving this drug crisis was one of the most important objectives in Tallahassee. The governor mentioned it prominently in his final state of the state speech. Lawmakers agreed that more resources had to be provided.

And yet, with the final budget about to be approved, it appears the funding needle has hardly budged. The Office of Drug Control was not revived. Of the additional funding available, more than half is coming from the federal government. And a last-minute effort to provide more state money was shot down.

So did the Legislature drop the ball?

That's a touchy question because there are extenuating circumstances. Most notably, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting in Parkland that dominated the final weeks of the session and forced lawmakers to come up with money to provide better school security.

"Parkland was a horrible tragedy, and I realize we had to act swiftly and decisively to make sure our schools are as safe as they can be,'' said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "Seventeen people died in the Parkland shooting, but 16 people are dying every day from opioids in Florida. Every day. Are you telling me we can't find any more money in the budget to help fix that problem?''

Rouson was pushing an amendment in the final week of the session that would have added another $25 million to the roughly $50 million already committed in the budget to fight the opioid crisis.

Senate leadership told him there was no money left.

While all of the state funds may have been accounted for, the truth is a $50 million allotment for a public health crisis is a pittance in a budget of this size.

"In an $80 billion budget, that's nothing,'' Bondi said earlier in the legislative session. "Nothing given all the lives that have been taken due to opioid abuse.''

Much of the Legislature's work this session was aimed at limiting the supply of opioids, and setting up programs that will help doctors with pain management decisions.

Rouson was seeking additional funds to deal with the addicts themselves. More beds, more detox centers, more outpatient services, more case management.

Lives are being lost, he said, but money is also being wasted. Failing to treat addicts means more taxpayer funds going to law enforcement, paramedics, emergency room operations and court costs. That doesn't include families in financial crisis when addicts lose their jobs or go to prison.

Getting in front of the problem means funding programs that would set up a bridge for overdose victims to get into treatment straight from an emergency room instead of walking back out the door.

"At the start of the legislative session we thought there was a greater opportunity to devote resources to this,'' said Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association. "We're very grateful for the resources that we're provided, and they will have a significant impact, but the reality is there were a lot of other priorities being placed on the Legislature after Parkland.''

For Rouson, the fight is not close to being finished. While there is no hope of getting additional funds in the 2018 budget, he said he will begin working on Monday to increase the 2019 budget.

He knows, after all, that fighting drug abuse is an ongoing battle. He relapsed seven times while fighting his own drug and alcohol addiction before finally getting clean.

The 20th anniversary of his sobriety is later this week.

"I know (legislators) get it. I know they understand the problem,'' he said. "It's just a question of pushing enough to make sure we get more action. I've been in this fight a long time. We'll eventually get there.''