Lawmakers must confront opioid addiction crisis

A bill in the Florida Legislature would expand a clean-needle program to prevent addicts from spreading disease.
A bill in the Florida Legislature would expand a clean-needle program to prevent addicts from spreading disease. Getty Images

According to a report released in November by the Florida Medical Examiner’s Commission, there were 5,725 opiate-related deaths in Florida in 2016.

My brother-in-law and good friend, David Abrams, was one of them. But my family’s loss, unfortunately, is all too common in Florida. Opiate addiction and death are approaching the ubiquity of diseases like cancer — where none among us are left untouched by its impact on ourselves and our loved ones.

In 2016, there was a 35 percent increase in opiate-related deaths from the previous year. Nearly 1,500 more lives were lost. Complete data for 2017 isn’t available yet, but preliminary and anecdotal reports suggest the problem is only getting worse.

Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University, estimated 2017’s death toll could top 7,000 — with a third coming from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The human costs of this epidemic are simply crushing, and our government must do more to stem the tragic losses Florida families are seeing daily.

It’s shocking that there is no single government agency collecting all statewide data to track the opiate crisis in Florida. We used to have such an agency, but Gov. Rick Scott eliminated the Office of Drug Control (ODC) in 2011 to curb “wasteful” government spending. The ODC was an integral part of first identifying the pill-mill epidemic that led to our current crisis and helped impel the Legislature to action at the time.

I introduced House Bill 1025 this legislative session to reinstate the ODC, as the 16-member Statewide Drug Policy Advisory Council recently urged Scott and the Legislature to do. It is a small step in what is and will be a large and lengthy fight against opiate addiction in the state. But it is an important one.

HB 1025 would also authorize the Agency for Health Care Administration to seek a Medicaid waiver from the federal government to allow coverage to include a far greater range of treatment options not currently allowed with Medicaid funds. This will not expand the covered Medicaid population, simply provide important options to those covered and struggling with substance use. Other states have successfully requested such waivers in recent years, and if Florida’s request were granted it could be a huge boon to treatment statewide. This is not a moonshot, the Trump administration has encouraged states to request such waivers and indicated they will approve them.

Two of my colleagues in the Legislature, Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, and Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami Gardens, have filed legislation to expand the syringe exchange program from the successful pilot in Miami-Dade County to any county that wants to set up a similar program.

Needle exchange programs save lives by preventing the spread of infectious diseases among — and putting lifesaving doses of Naloxone in — the hands of drug users and those closest to them, and by providing information and assistance to addicts regarding available treatment options. In less than a year, the Miami-Dade IDEA exchange has distributed more than 600 doses of Naloxone and received more than half returned used — more than 300 lives saved.

These three proposals — reinstating the Office of Drug Control, requesting a Medicaid waiver to cover a broader range of addiction treatment and allowing the syringe exchange pilot to expand from Miami-Dade County — are relative drops in the bucket of Florida’s roughly $80 billion annual budget. Reinstating the ODC would cost roughly $500,000 a year, a Medicaid waiver would mean a marginal increase in state spending on existing recipients (with the federal government covering 60 percent), and syringe exchange programs, by law, must be privately funded.

The 2018 session must be one in which we finally start to claw back from the destructive scourge of opiates. These bills attempt to strike at various parts of the greater problem, while costing our state little. They deserve the full consideration of the Florida Legislature this session.

Nicholas Duran represents District 112 in the Florida Legislature.