Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala held a roundtable discussion Tuesday in Palm Beach County with lawmakers, local leaders and public-safety officials to address Florida's opioid crisis.
Palm Beach County is one of the epicenters of the epidemic. From January through May of this year, the county had 311 opioid overdoses, compared to 258 over the same period in 2016, according to numbers from Latvala's office. The county totaled 592 opioid-related deaths in 2016.
“This is obviously an issue that is on all of our minds,” Latvala, R-Clearwater, said during the discussion at Palm Beach State College's Lake Worth Campus. “Everybody can make proclamations and declarations, but it's when rubber hits road, that's when things get going. I am here to listen and learn about this crisis.”
Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the country, with 52,404 fatal overdoses reported in 2015, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Opioid addiction drove the epidemic with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers and 12,990 deaths related to heroin.
Palm Beach County has taken $1 million out of reserves to address the epidemic on a local level. During this spring's legislative session, state lawmakers passed bills to address what are known as “sober homes” —- a major issue in Palm Beach County —- and to crack down on people who traffic in fentanyl, a deadly painkiller sometimes mixed with heroin.
During Tuesday's meeting, Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Melissa McKinlay presented statistics about the opioid crisis and said the county had spent more than $200,000 on Narcan, an opiate antidote used in emergency situations.
“The epidemic is impacting the manufacturing industry and business communities,” McKinlay said. “People cannot pass drug tests because of this. The bigger picture is that addiction is a disease. We want to break the stigma of addicts because nobody wakes up one day and chooses to become an addict.”
Gabrielle Finley-Hazle, CEO of St. Mary's Medical Center, described newborns being treated in hospitals for drug withdrawal. The newborns experience the same symptoms that an addict would experience, including tremors, fever, seizures and pain.
“This is concerning for our community,” Finley-Hazle said. “What will happen when these babies are older? We need prevention programs to help addictive moms, treat patients for detox and for educating children.”
Emilio Benitez, president and CEO of ChildNet, a community-based care agency that contracts with the state, said the opioid crisis also is having an impact on the child-welfare system. Benitez said 45 percent of Palm Beach County children removed from their homes since January were a result of parents abusing opioids. The number was 31 percent in Broward County.
Solutions proposed during Tuesday's discussion included more beds and centers for treatment and recovery, funding for medical and emergency personnel, education programs and counseling programs to assist families of addicts.
Among the participants in the meeting was Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican whose district includes part of Palm Beach County. Negron and Latvala, the Senate's chief budget writer who is widely expected to run for governor in 2018, are two of the most-influential political figures in the state.
“The purpose of this discussion was for President Negron and Senator Latvala to provide resources to use,” McKinlay said. “It's for them to hear the problem to create ideas and projects for local action plans.”