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Amidst criticism he has not done enough to deal with the growing opioid abuse issue in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) last week declared such abuse to be a public health emergency. The declaration allows the state to accept $54 million in federal grant money over the next two years to combat the epidemic.
State data shows that opioids were directly responsible for the deaths of over 2,500 Floridians in 2015, the latest year for which data is available, and contributed to the deaths of 1,358 more. But as recently as last month Scott resisted calls from lawmakers and health advocates to make the emergency declaration. He instead suggested that law enforcement and public agencies in counties hit hardest by the opioid epidemic hold workshops to better educate their communities about the issue.
“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,” Scott said in a statement. “Families across our nation are fighting the opioid epidemic and Florida is going to do everything possible to help our communities.”
The declaration came on the same day the Senate approved HB 477, a measure that would impose tough criminal penalties on people who traffic in fentanyl, a vastly more potent synthetic opioid that is often mixed with organic opioids like heroin. Fentanyl has become a leading factor in the spike in overdose deaths across the nation. At press time the measure was set to return to the House but is expected to make it to Scott for his signature.
Lawmakers and health advocates welcomed the emergency declaration but questioned why Scott waited so long to make it, particularly in light of his rapid willingness to declare emergencies over wildfires and other health concerns like Ebola and the Zika virus.
“The state of emergency coalesces everybody behind the problem,” Sen. Jeff Clemens (D) said last month. “I’m a little perplexed and confused why we have thousands of deaths in Florida and we don’t declare a state of emergency, but we have wildfires that have caused zero deaths and we do.”
But on Wednesday, Sen. Jack Latvala (R) praised the move, essentially saying it was better late than never.
“The governor has the power now with an emergency order to take over the funding in that area, so that’s one of the pluses there,” Latvala said. “I think the important thing is he’s done it, and not what day or how many days did it take him to do.” (MIAMI HERALD, PALM BEACH POST, ORLANDO SUN SENTINEL)