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  1. Florida Politics

Rick Scott announces support for new legislation, $50 million to fight opioid crisis

Gov. Rick Scott announced on Sept. 26, 2017, that he is calling for a series of new proposals to fight the opioid epidemic in Florida, including $50 million in new funding. [Associated Press file photo]

Gov. Rick Scott announced Tuesday that he is calling for a series of new proposals to fight the opioid epidemic in Florida, including $50 million in new funding.

"We've got to do more education of our prescribers. We've got to help our substance abuse centers. We've got to help law enforcement," Scott said.

The new $50 million would go toward drug treatment, counseling and the Florida Violent Crime and Drug Control Council, which recommends initiatives to fight major crimes.

The new proposals include a three-day limit on opioid prescriptions; mandating that doctors who prescribe pain pills take part in the Florida Prescription Drug Monitoring Program — a program Scott opposed when he took office — and a new regulatory fight against unlicensed prescribers.

Limiting unnecessary opioid prescriptions is key to preventing people from developing addictions, doctors say.

But Tampa psychiatrist Jamie Fernandez warned against "one-size-fits-all" prescription limits.

"While limiting a prescribing pattern will be helpful, we also need to be mindful of the need for more individualized treatment," Fernandez said.

Fernandez moderated panel discussions Tuesday at the Hillsborough County Opioid Summit, a gathering of medical and mental health experts and law enforcement officials organized by County Commissioner Sandy Murman.

Murman learned of the governor's announcement during the event, and thought his proposals were "all good" strategies for fighting opioid addiction.

Florida has seen opioid overdose deaths spike in the last four years, recently surpassing the levels seen in the pill mill heydey in and around 2010, according to the state's Medical Examiners Commission. Opioids killed 3,896 Floridians in 2015, the most in a decade, and a May report estimated more than 5,300 such deaths in 2016.

Dina Swanson, assistant chief forensic toxicologist at the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's office, said in 2010, oxycodone and alprazolam were the primary problems. Now they're heroin and fentanyl.

Fentanyl, which drug dealers often put in heroin, is 50 to 100 times as powerful as morphine. Swanson also said she's coming across more victims of Carfentanil, which is 10,000 times as powerful. Two milligrams are enough to knock out a wild African Elephant, she said.

Those substances are driving a significant increase in overdoses, Swanson said. The county is on pace for 225 drug overdoses in 2017, she said, up from 197 the year before.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said the county can't just arrest its way out of the drug epidemic.

"This is a public health crisis, not a criminal justice crisis," he said. He lauded expanding prescription drug monitoring programs and pushing for rehabilitation and treatment rather than harsh punishments for drug users.

But such treatment will take a lot more investment at the federal and local levels, said Tom Hill, vice president of the National Council for Behavioral Health. Hill said the outsized impact of heroin on white, middle class communities compared to prior drug epidemics brings more political attention, and lawmakers should "leverage this moment" to take action.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, recounted his own recovery from addiction — he's 19 years, six months and two days sober — and demanded more aggressive treatment.

"Ten to 12 people are dying every day in this state," he said. "And what are we doing about it?"

In a news release, Scott said his own family "struggled with substance abuse."

"As states across the country continue to fight this national epidemic, we must make sure Florida is doing our part to help vulnerable individuals and keep our families safe," he said.

Told that patients will be forced to pay more out of their pockets for co-payments if prescriptions are limited to a three-day supply, Scott said: "We'll work with the insurance companies ... but let's think about this. These are people (who) are dying. These are people losing their lives."

Fernandez, the Tampa doctor, said medical professionals know what treatments work but need to remove barriers to access. She hoped the state would work with local governments to improve coverage.

In 2011, the governor called on state legislators to repeal a law mandating the prescription drug monitoring program he now wants to bolster.

Asked about his previous opposition, Scott cited changes in the past few years to the original database law.

"We've passed legislation that created more security for people, and so I think it's the right thing to be doing now. But we have a lot more precautions now."

Murman was glad he came around.

"I think he's for it because he knows it's another tool in the toolbox you've got to use if you're really going to curb the epidemic," she said.

Contact Langston Taylor at ltaylor@tampabay.com. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Tines staff writer Kirby Wilson and senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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