Gov. Rick Scott today issued an executive order declaring a a public health emergency as a result of surging deaths from prescription drugs and heroin.
The executive order is largely a symbolic move on the governor’s part as it does not substantially alter the state’s own investment in prevention, alter existing laws, or proposes new initiatives. Rather, it gives the Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement the authority to more easily contract for certain services without going through the normal procurement process. The governor is not making specific additional dollars available, but the order makes it easier to tap into $27 million in federal dollars to be used for prevention, and directs agencies to see what dollars may be tapped in certain state funds.
Scott in the order acknowledges that demands on agencies responding to the crisis are too great and resources “may be inadequate to pay the costs of coping with this severe circumstance.” So the order directs “that sufficient funds be made available, as needed, by transferring and expending moneys appropriated for other purposes, moneys from unappropriated surplus funds, or from the Budget Stabilization Fund.” The stabilization fund, a reserve, is required by law to remain at between 5 and 10 percent of the previous fiscal year’s net revenue collections.
The order also calls on the State Health Officer and the Surgeon General, Celeste Philip, to declare a statewide public health emergency, though the implications of that declaration are yet unclear.
“I know firsthand how heartbreaking substance abuse can be to a family because it impacted my own family growing up,” Scott is quoted as saying ina release announcing Executive Order 17-146. “The individuals struggling with drug use are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends and each tragic case leaves loved ones searching for answers and praying for help. Families across our nation are fighting the opioid epidemic and Florida is going to do everything possible to help our communities.”
Today, the Florida Senate passed a bill to make trafficking in fentanyl a first-degree felony, which means conviction could carry a 30-year prison sentence. Fentanyl, a pain killer, is one of the prescription drugs increasingly used in the state and across the country.
In Florida, according to the 2015 Medical Examiners Commission Drug Report–the latest available–total drug-related deaths increased by 13.9 percent over 2014, with prescription drugs accounting for 67.7 percent of all such deaths, when alcohol is excluded.
Most startlingly for Florida, “Occurrences of heroin increased by 74.3 percent and deaths caused by heroin increased by 79.7 percent when compared with 2014,” the report found. The percentage jump in deaths is comparable for fentanyl, “a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The drug is typically prescribed to patients to manage severe pain after surgery.
But the percentages should be kept in perspective: while alcohol is still by far the single-most frequent drug found in decedents (22.9 percent of the time), prescription drugs account for the largest death toll: there were 3,104 such deaths (by accident) in the state, compared to 779 deaths from heroin, according to the report.
The four-county district that includes Flagler recorded 83 deaths where prescription drugs were found in the decedent, but just 43 deaths where prescription drugs were the attributable cause–a 30 percent decline in 2015, compared to 2014. (As the report defines those deaths, “The drugs were identified as either the cause of death or merely present in the decedent and also may have been mixed with illicit drugs and/or alcohol.”
The heroin “epidemic” is being felt in central Florida around Orlando and in South Florida, but it has largely evaded this region: the St. Augustine district of the Medical Examiner, which includes Flagler, St. Johns, Volusia and St. Johns, recorded just two heroin-related deaths in 2015, and one death a year in the previous three years. There had been no recorded heroin deaths in the district between 2003 and 2009. Cocaine, by comparison, claimed nine deaths in 2015 in the district that includes Flagler, one death in 2014, and 11 deaths each of the two previous years. Overall, cocaine deaths are down by more than half since the first decade of the millennium in the district.
Fentanyl-related deaths are increasing, but while the drug was found in 911 decedents in 2015 (eight of them in the district that includes Flagler), 705 deaths were attributed directly to the drug.
Nationally in 2015 more than 52,000 people died from a drug overdose, with 33,091 of those deaths, or almost two-thirds, involving either prescription drugs or heroin.