Florida is reeling from an opioid epidemic that spans young and old, rural and urban. State lawmakers are once again trying to reduce overdose deaths and prevent addiction.
For many, what can begin with knee surgery or back pain can explode into a full blown addiction. Joanne Richter of Broward County saw her brother’s disease spiral out of control. And she thinks doctors didn’t do enough to prevent his death.
“He has for many years been able to acquire prescriptions, ninety pills at a time. No monitoring of those prescriptions being written by numerous physicians. And also being filled by numerous drug stores, by just going from one to another," Richter said.
And as doctors crack down on overprescribing, patients are increasingly turning to a cheaper high, like heroin or fentanyl. Jane Colbert saw the cycle of drug abuse as a neonatal nurse. She says many heroin addictions begin with a doctor’s visit.
“Eight out of ten heroin addicts started with a prescription opiate. A pain pill. This is a physician prescribed epidemic,” Colbert said.
That’s why lawmakers want to update the state’s prescription drug monitoring program. That’s a central database that tracks high risk prescriptions and how often they’re being doled out. Miami Representative Nicholas Duran wants doctors to file their prescription reports the next day, instead of within a week.
Lawmakers in the Senate are also trying to reauthorize the program’s fundraising arm, which keeps it afloat.
Meanwhile Fort Pierce Democratic Representative Larry Lee wants physicians to connect overdose patients with substance abuse treatment.
“This is not the cure-all. I was speaking with a legislator just yesterday day, and they said they worked fifteen years on a part bill. And every year they built upon that bill. And we hope this is the foundation we can build upon to deal with this crisis that we face,” Lee said.
And Naples Republican Representative Bob Rommell wants medical practitioners to report information about their drug overdose patients. Gender, age, date and location would be included, but patients’ names would be removed to protect their privacy. Lawmakers say a database will help public health and public safety officials track overdose hotspots across the state. Heather Davidson represents the Broward County United Way.
“Last year in Broward our overdose rate jumped 230%. Just in one year. And that’s not unusual for the other counties in Florida,” Davidson said.
Representative Daisy Baez, a Coral Gables Democrat, was an emergency room social worker for ten years. And she understands the pressure on medical staff. She wants lawmakers to balance the need to collect data with the workload of emergency room physicians.
“Because I know it’s a very fast-paced, difficult environment. And we certainly don’t want to put onerous requests or demands on staff that are already taxed to the limit,” Baez said.
Democratic Representative Wengay Newton of St. Petersburg says there is still a disconnect between addicts and first responders. The representative’s brother served as a first responder for twenty years, and saw the fear of prosecution firsthand.
“They were almost less likely to confide in him because of the fear of what would happen if they shared,” Newton said.
Under current Florida law, overdose patients won’t be prosecuted when they seek medical treatment. And Good Samaritan drug users are immune from charges as well, when they call 911 for another overdose victim in need of care. But the rising number of overdose deaths implies that message isn’t reaching everyone.