Following a persisting opioid epidemic trend throughout the United States, the population of Florida is experiencing overwhelming amounts of opioid abuse, addiction, nonfatal overdoses, and fatal overdoses.
The opioid epidemic has become a public health crisis across the entire state of Florida as the numbers of opioid-related overdoses and deaths are increasing at a staggering rate as demonstrated in a November 2017 report from the Florida Medical Examiner’s Commission that determined that there were 5,725 opioid-related deaths, or an increase of 35%, in Florida from 2015 to 2016.
The opioid addictions are far-reaching and encompass many demographics, leaving loved ones struggling to make sense of how the addiction spiraled out of control and leaving communities struggling to find the resources to respond to such dramatic increases in opioid overdoses and deaths.
The opioid epidemic is considered a public health crisis because such significant numbers of people are dying every day from opioid addiction in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes alarmingly high overdose rates across the country, confirming that the United States experiences an average rate of 115 people dying every day from opioid overdoses and that deaths from prescription opioids have increased over 400% since 1999.
It is alarming that over four times the amount of people are dying from prescription drug overdoses today than they were before the millennium. This striking increase is also illustrated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declaring that in the United States, drug overdoses are statistically the most common death by injury. The national public health crisis is felt across the United States, and especially in the state of Florida.
Opioid Epidemic: Florida’s State of Emergency Over Opioid Abuse
One statistic from the CDC that demonstrates the prevalence of the opioid epidemic in the state is the rapid increase in deaths due to drug overdoses, which increased 46.3 percent from 2015 to 2016. With such a significant risk to the public health, the state moved to take all available avenues to mitigate the impact of the opioid epidemic on its population.
In May of 2017, the governor of Florida officially declared a state of emergency in response to the state’s epidemic of opioid addiction. A state government declaring a state of emergency is a measure only utilized by administrations during situations of national disaster and/or danger, using the measure’s temporary suspension of standard procedural protocols to facilitate and fund rapid responses to the national disaster. By declaring Florida’s opioid addiction as a public health emergency, the government is able to access over $50 million of grant money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide treatment, recovery, and prevention services throughout the state.
That number, $50 million, may seem like a significant amount of funds to allocate to a national disaster, but it seems less so when compared to the Child Welfare League of America 2017 statistic, which indicated that during the year 2015, health care costs related to opioid abuse in Florida reached $1,246,526,068. This staggering amount is evident when considering the strains felt on all levels of the state government’s ability to respond to the looming and deadly public health crisis of opioid addiction. Local resources, including emergency medical and ambulance teams, police officers, welfare workers, hospitals and health care professionals, treatment centers, and morgues are all challenged by the rates of opioid addiction and abuse, especially in their abilities to respond to the strains felt in the communities and the families that are directly or indirectly affected by the epidemic.
Rapidly Increasing Opioid Abuse and Its Strain on Local Resources
The rapid growth of opioid abuse in communities across the state of Florida has overwhelmed emergency responders, hospitals, social services, and local morgues with its significant increase in nonfatal and fatal opioid overdoses as well as babies being born addicted to opioids. Delray Beach estimates that every opioid overdose call costs the city $2,000 directly, and their resources are strained to withstand the capacity of opioid-related overdoses and emergency calls.
Emergency responders are racing from one overdose to another, careful to avoid risks such as extremely potent opioid drugs or needles and syringes as they try to move fast enough to prevent the loss of another community member to a fatal opioid overdose. Hospitals are consistently overwhelmed and struggling to provide the capacity and the manpower to treat the amount of opioid overdose patients. Social services officials working with the children caught in the throes of the opioid epidemic need additional resources to perform investigations, including bringing behavioral health specialists with them when dealing with opioid-related child protective cases. The morgues are running out of space for the bodies of the many loved ones lost to the epidemic.
The costs of the opioid addiction are direct and significant. The city of Delray Beach is taking a different approach to recouping the significant cost sustained by the city to date in combating their local opioid epidemic by taking legal action against the pharmaceutical manufacturers on a consumer protection basis. Using the same law firm that successfully negotiated the 2008 multibillion dollar settlement with corporate giant Enron, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, the city claims that the companies use deceptive marketing methods to produce and sell the extremely addictive opioid medications and that such deceptive marketing practices are causing significant addiction rates that are not only causing the deaths of many thousands of Floridians, but are also directly costing the city tremendous amounts of valuable taxpayer dollars in combating the epidemic.
The Impact on Florida Families
Opioid addiction is a traumatic experience for all involved whether you are experiencing an addiction firsthand or you are witnessing someone close to you, such as a family member or dear friend, struggle to overcome their opioid addiction. The reality is that opioids change the chemistry of the brain, which will cause changes to the individual’s behavior.
These changes are evident especially in family and domestic situations where those closest to the addict witness the changes in behavior, decision making, and motivation. Due to the altered and often volatile behavior exhibited by those experiencing an opioid dependency, Florida social services officials responding to reports of opioid abuse in households with children take behavioral health specialists with them to assist in determining whether the behavior in the household is indicative of an opioid addiction.
Another harsh reality is that many fail to understand how much quicker the body becomes addicted to the drug, with the CDC confirming in their March 17, 2017 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that while the opioids are commonly prescribed to treat acute pain, the probably of long-term or chronic opioid abuse increases significantly, particularly after five days.
The quick onset of the addiction creates the risk for stronger dependency the longer the use continues, and the effects of the addiction are felt throughout the household as the user’s behavior begins to change. When the opioid addiction begins, the home dynamic often begins to change in a way that is centered on the individual with the opioid addiction. This shift often creates a void of attention to other family members, and when these family members include children, the behavior quickly escalates to what the state would consider unsafe living conditions for the children in the home.
The surging rates of opioid abuse across the United States are evident in the alarming increase in the number of babies being born addicted to opiates over the past five years. In 2016, over 4,000 babies were born with opioid addictions in Florida, and the number of children under the age of 5 that had to be removed from their homes due to substance abuse increased 38%. The information is staggering, but it’s indicative of a nationwide opioid epidemic and public health crisis that puts many lives, including the lives of many newborn babies, at risk on a daily basis.
Current Florida Initiatives to Combat the Opioid Crisis
It is testimonies from state welfare workers, health care providers, and emergency responders who witness the effects of the opioid epidemic firsthand on the family and community level that have resonated with the Florida government in forming laws to empower the state in combating the opioid crisis.
The government of Florida has not only dedicated additional resources as part of the state of emergency declared in May 2017, but it has also introduced legislation that would greatly enhance the medical industry’s ability to monitor patient drug prescriptions and also to require shorter prescriptions for addictive opioid medications. The Florida Senate version of the bill passed the Health Quality Committee on January 16, 2018.
The legislation’s requirement for all health care professionals to enter patient prescription information into a statewide database presents an opportunity to reduce the amount of duplicate or conflicting prescriptions, which could indicate a potential opioid abuse problem. It also presents the opportunity for health care professionals to attain extremely relevant, yet oftentimes undisclosed, current prescription details to enable them to make better-informed decisions regarding issuing prescriptions. By empowering health care professionals with current and accurate information, they are able to not only avoid liabilities on their part but also to identify the signs of drug abuse by determining if a patient’s opioid usage is appropriate for their pain levels and current medical conditions.
The legislation’s requirement for shorter prescriptions for the medication, currently included as a three-day limit for most of the included medications but with seven-day limits for special circumstances, could present the opportunity to reduce the addictive effects of the opioid drug on the patient or the way in which opioids alter the way in which the brain functions by increasing dopamine levels. Exposure to these brain-altering drugs for an extended period of time makes these neurological responses more difficult to reverse, which makes it hard for the patient to return to regular dopamine levels without the opioids. This leads the patient to the unfortunate opportunity to develop a precarious and often fatal addiction to the opioid drugs.
As the state works to develop more effective opioid addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery programs that will mitigate the effects of the epidemic, other organizations in the state are working to provide resources to the families and communities directly and indirectly affected by opioid abuse. These organizations include the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) Task Force. Although the opioid epidemic is still strong in Florida and throughout the country, the awareness of the effects and signs of opioid dependency, including the extremely addictive nature of the drug, the rates in which families are being divided, and the rates in which people are dying, is contributing to a louder discussion across the country.
As more information comes to light and local and state governments continue to be vigilant in developing programs to assist those dealing with opioid addictions, states are better able to formulate strategies to effectively combat the crisis of the opioid epidemic.