Politics & Government

Florida’s heroin and opioid crisis comes to Capitol Hill

Florida delegation members listen to Frank C. Rabbito, senior vice president of WestCare Foundation during a public meeting on the heroin crisis.
Florida delegation members listen to Frank C. Rabbito, senior vice president of WestCare Foundation during a public meeting on the heroin crisis. Bradenton

Florida’s heroin and prescription opioid problem hit Capitol Hill on Thursday when lawmakers from across the state got an update about the destructive force of abuse and addiction that’s rocking families from Key West to Jacksonville.

U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, and Alcee Hastings, D-Fort Lauderdale, organized the meeting for Florida’s congressional representatives just days after a state medical examiner’s commission report showed heroin overdose deaths in the state increased 900 percent from 2010 to 2014.

From 2013 to 2014 alone, heroin deaths in Florida jumped from 199 to 447. That’s up 684 percent from just 57 in 2011.

At Thursday’s meeting, Buchanan spoke of the success in stopping Florida’s notorious “pill mills,” the shady pain centers where prescription opioids were sold like penny candy. But that victory brought another problem: Addicts simply replaced the pills with cheaper heroin.

And Manatee County quickly became the epicenter for Florida’s heroin problem, said Melissa Larkin-Skinner, chief clinical officer at the Centerstone drug rehabilitation facility in Bradenton.

“The word was out that heroin was only $10 a bag, while just one pain pill was $30,” she told lawmakers Thursday.

As the problem worsened in the Bradenton area, so did the body count.

“There were reports of people being found unconscious in parking lots, running cars, convenient store bathrooms...even at the library,” Skinner said.

Ambulance crews in the Bradenton area used 325 doses of the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone in 2013, she said. In 2014 and 2015, they used 2,052 doses.

As heroin’s grip on the entire state continued to grow, dealers began blending it with the powerful additive Fentanyl.

“Fentanyl is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 40 to 50 times (more powerful than) pharmaceutical-grade heroin,” said Frank Rabbito, a Miami-based regional deputy chief operations officer at WestCare, which operates rehab facilities in Florida and nationally.

Fentanyl is also used to manufacture counterfeit Xanax and oxycodone, anxiety and pain medications.

“All you have to do is send away for these chemicals (from) Asia, Mexico, get the equipment shipped to your house and start producing knock-off pills. Extremely, extremely dangerous,” Rabbito said.

He and Larkin-Skinner called on lawmakers to “pump more money into treatment” for drug abusers.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, also attended the meeting. His Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Reduction Act of 2016, HR 5046, was passed unanimously out of the House Judiciary Committee this week and is among nearly a dozen anti-opioid bills that are expected to receive a full floor vote in the House in the next several weeks.

The Senate version of Sensenbrenner’s bill, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, passed with a near-unanimous 94-1 vote.

But the legislation, sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, provides no new money to fund its ambitious goals after Republican lawmakers killed a Democratic plan to provide $600 million in funding for measure.

Rep.Ted Deutch, D-Gainesville, said Florida would have the money to expand treatment options for 300,000 low-income people with mental illness or substance abuse problems if the state legislature expanded eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“I would point to all of the states around the country with legislatures and governors who are as, or more, conservative than ours who have found ways to do it,” Deutch said. “We can help a whole lot of people if we could figure out a way to expand Medicaid and get people the care that they need.”

Rep. Todd Yoho, R-Gainesville, said he supports more money for treatment, but said death sentences should be imposed for those who smuggle heroin into the country from Mexico.

“If we’re truly serious about bringing this to an end, we need to make it a capital offense,” Yoho told lawmakers.

Jennifer Ellison, a recovering heroin addict from Miami who has been drug-free for “four years, four months and 28 days” after undergoing rehabilitation at WestCare, told lawmakers she began taking drugs at age 12.

Ellison, 35, said her father was a heroin addict and her mother was addicted to pills. Both are dead.

Ellison is now pursuing a degree in sociology and attending community college. She echoed the call for more funding for drug treatment and said that without it, “I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the meeting was Wednesday.

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