BY DEVIN HEFLIN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
ORLANDO - Governors of six states have declared an emergency over the emerging heroin crisis which has moved into major cities. The states are Alaska, Arizona, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and Florida.
Of the latter state, Governor Rick Scott has combatted one substance epidemic following another since his rise to state executive in 2011. That year, Scott declared a state of emergency as the then pill mill crisis was reported to have killed seven people a day in Florida.
Six years later, the Florida Department of Health has reported that heroin use is killing ten people a day in the sunshine state.
In Florida, the emergency declaration issued in May enabled Gov. Rick Scott to quickly allocate some $27 million in federal funds for drug treatment and prevention.
Since declaring an emergency, the state of Maryland has tightened practices for those prescribing opioids and received a waiver to allow Medicaid to pay for residential drug treatment.
Orlando alone has seen sixteen heroin related deaths from December of last year to the present.
Opioids, mostly heroin and fentanyl, killed an average of 14 people a day in Florida during the first half of 2016.
At that rate, based on data released in May by the state's medical examiners, last year's fatal overdoses are on track to rise by a record 36 percent.
-Occurrences of heroin increased by 74.3 percent and deaths caused by heroin increased by 79.7 percent when compared with 2014.
-Occurrences of fentanyl increased by 69.3 percent and deaths caused by fentanyl increased by 77.6 percent when compared with 2014.
- Occurrences of methadone (8.3 percent) and hydrocodone (9.1 percent) decreased when compared with 2014. Also, deaths caused by methadone (22 less) and hydrocodone (14 less) decreased when compared to 2014.
Heroin Related Deaths in Florida:
In comparison with adjoining states:
- In Maryland, where 550 overdose deaths were reported in just the first three months of this year, Gov. Larry Hogan declared opioids a public health emergency in March.
- Massachusetts was the first state to declare opioids a public health emergency in 2014. Then-Gov. Deval Patrick acted on the recommendations of a special task force, says Michael Barnett, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
- Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared a public health emergency in June. Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association says with that declaration, the state began gathering badly needed data on the crisis.
President Donald Trump has also declared a state of emergency on the national level in wake of the epidemic.
Despite the emergency declaration, Florida, unlike some other states, hasn't tapped Medicaid to help pay for drug treatment.
Opioid Overdose Deaths by Race/Ethnicity:
Drug treatment advocates say much more still must be done to curtail the dramatic rise in deaths.
"It's killing more people a day than traffic accidents and than guns," said Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association. "There's a lot more that could be done and needs to be done."
Treatment and Prevention options:
After the crackdown, those addicted to the shrinking supply of prescription painkillers searched for alternatives. The use of heroin, fentanyl and deadlier synthetic offshoots exploded.
Palm Beach County, Fla., saw nearly 600 fatal overdoses last year, mostly related to opioids.
In Orange County, FL, Sheriff Jerry Demings, in collusion with Mayor Teresa Jacobs, have formed the Heroin Task Force, which provides education and safe rehabilitative spaces.
“If we in government and enforcement are not working to stop offenders dealing heroin and educating those using it, we are contributing to the growth of the issue.” Said Demings, as our publication previously covered the rising heroin epidemic and the task forces’ formation.
It took a personal appeal from State Attorney General Pam Bondi to pass Florida lawmakers’ bill, which Scott signed into law in June of this year.
"Will a three-year minimum mandatory make a difference? Heck yeah, it will," Bondi said. "It's going to get these monsters off the streets."
Other measures passed this year require doctors to log prescriptions in the statewide painkiller database by the end of the next business day. Supporters hope faster reporting will make it harder for people to get prescriptions from multiple doctors.
Lawmakers set aside $10.5 million for medications that can help reduce opioid dependency, most of which will be spent in the state prison system.
Bondi is also on the executive committee of a multistate investigation into painkiller manufacturers, her office confirmed for the first time this week, though it would not provide details, citing that the matter is ongoing.