‘Welcome to the Oxy-tourism Capital’<
Last Modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 8:31 p.m.
( page all of 4 ) EDITORIAL: “The Sarasota Heradl Tribune” (Sarasota, Florida)
The reasons for Florida to implement the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program — despite Gov. Rick Scott’s opposition — are painfully apparent.
For instance, recently reported data show that the number of newborns with drug-withdrawal syndrome continued to increase last year.
This week, the Orlando Sentinel reported that, in the first half of 2010, Florida officials recorded 635 such cases. The frequency of reported cases during those six months was, according to the most recent data available, on pace to exceed the numbers from 2009 — when nearly 1,000 babies were treated for the painful symptoms linked to withdrawal. From 2006 to 2009, Florida experienced a 173 percent increase in such cases.
The state’s numbers don’t explain the cause of the newborns’ withdrawal symptoms, but many doctors believe that the increase in cases is linked to the rising rates of prescription-drug abuse and addiction.
Most mothers are not tested for the presence of such drugs, but the doctors’ hypothesis is supported by the rising number of deaths and addiction cases tied to powerful, addictive narcotics. Arrests, court cases, news reports and anecdotal evidence about the availability of such drugs from so-called pill mills and on the black market further support that conclusion.
‘The babies cry inconsolably’
Last year, a Herald-Tribune news report described the physical pain, emotional effects and financial impacts of such cases:
“The babies cry inconsolably in high pitches, while tremors make their limbs quiver like vibrating strings. Their open mouths drift, unable to find their bottles, until they do, and then they suck so much they throw up. Nurses wrap them tightly in blankets to keep them from hurting themselves as their muscles tighten and jerk in spasms.
“In Sarasota Memorial’s intensive care nursery, these infants are now up to half the population at times. They are born addicted to painkillers or the painkiller substitute methadone — collateral damage in a national epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
“‘They’re trying to come out of their skin,’ said Judy Cavallaro, a nurse who oversees the hospital’s nursery, where the withdrawing babies are sometimes first spotted and then sent to intensive care. ‘It’s traumatic for everyone.'”
And expensive for the state. Each baby’s stay in neonatal intensive care costs between $15,000 and $20,000, a bill often delivered to taxpayers through Medicaid.
Prescription drugs contributed to the deaths of about 2,500 Floridians of all ages during each of the past several years, with the numbers rising annually, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. Experts believe that the number of drug-related deaths is substantially understated, in part because medical examiners don’t conduct autopsies after all deaths.
In our region, the leaders of 12 area hospitals and county health departments, under the auspices of the County Health Improvement Partnership, have launched a “Campaign for Responsible Prescriptions.”
The coalition will sponsor events at which health care providers will be taught how to identify addiction problems and to direct patients to pain specialists or substance-abuse experts. Last weekend, the coalition conducted training for about 100 doctors and other providers; during the gathering, the coalition honored state Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican, for his work to pass legislation that created the Drug Monitoring Program and enacted much-needed regulation of clinics that dispense excessive amounts of painkillers — at huge profits.
The coalition deserves credit for its campaign, but its members acknowledge that it is not enough: They strongly support a statewide database. And they are backed by legitimate pain-management clinics, public and private hospitals, key members of the pharmacological industry, a long list of health-care providers, drug-treatment specialists and law enforcement officials.
A raid on pill mills in Southeast Florida this week underscored the magnitude of the problem. Federal, state and local agents arrested clinic operators, many of whom have no medical background, for dispensing enormous quantities of narcotics — on a cash-only basis — and soliciting clients via phone calls and the Internet.
Florida’s failure to implement the Legislature-approved Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which would include a trackable database designed to flag the dispensing of large quantities of narcotics such as OxyContin, has even drawn criticism from officials in other Southeastern states.
The critics cite the fact that residents of other states routinely drive to Florida to buy prescription narcotics, and then return to sell those drugs. Authorities have found drugs dispensed in Florida at the scenes of numerous deaths throughout the Southeast.
Kentucky’s lieutenant governor is so angry that he recently threatened to buy a billboard, near the Florida border, that would project this message: “Welcome to the Oxy-tourism Capital of the World.”
Scott stands opposed
Despite the pain and suffering experienced by Floridians and residents of other states — and the embarrassment of Florida — Gov. Scott has proposed eliminating the Drug Monitoring Program. Scott said the program was ineffective, even though it hasn’t been implemented, and cited concerns about potential costs.
Fortunately, even some skeptics are becoming supporters. Senate President Mike Haridopolos said Wednesday that he not only wants to retain and implement the program, but would be willing to fund it with taxpayers’ funds if necessary. “We will get this funded, because it’s a major problem,” Haridopolos said. “It is destroying people’s lives. And I think we need to make a vigilant stand and lead and make sure that Florida is no longer the pill mill capital of America. And if it takes private money or public money, we should pay for it …”
Exactly. Implementing and funding the program — and improving the enabling legislation and regulations — are worth the effort, the cost and a showdown with Scott.