Florida is losing $20 million in federal funding for mental illness and substance abuse treatment, which could result in less help on the front lines of a crisis that claimed more than 1,000 lives last year in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
State Senate budget chiefs looking for solutions heard testimony Tuesday at Palm Beach State College from fire, police and health officials about the severity of the heroin epidemic and a shortage of treatment beds.
State Rep. Matt Willhite, a captain for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, said he recently treated an 11-month-old baby who had found heroin at home, overdosed and stopped breathing. Paramedics revived the baby, Willhite said.
“This is a bigger issue, in my opinion, than Zika,” said Willhite, D-Wellington. “We got, but this is hurting and killing people far more than Zika ever will.”
Several state legislators have said they were unaware until recently Florida lost $20.4 million in federal grant funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment.
“I sit on Health Care Appropriations, and I had no idea,” said state Sen. Kevin Rader, D-. “We didn’t talk about this in 20 meetings that we were losing $20 million.”
State officials estimated it costs $15,000 to $40,000 on average to treat a person addicted to opioids, Rader said.
State Sen. , chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he will work on getting more funding.
“We made an effort to try to add some special money just for this area,” said Latvala, who is widely expected to announce a run for governor next week. “Unfortunately, it takes two houses to make a budget, and we were not successful.”
Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Melissa McKinlay, who helped to organize the hearing, said state legislators need to offset the federal dollars immediately given the in her county.
President stressed stronger law enforcement during a briefing Tuesday at his golf club in New Jersey, saying there were 23 percent fewer prosecutions at the end of 2016 compared with 2011.
He called the opioid epidemic “a problem, the likes of which we have never seen” in his remarks.
Trump’s commission on opioids recommended last week that he declare the crisis a national emergency.
“The president certainly believes that it is, that we will treat it as an emergency — and it is an emergency,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services . “When you have the capacity of Yankee Stadium or Dodger Stadium dying every single year in this nation, that’s a crisis that has to be given incredible attention and the president is giving it that attention."
Florida legislators this year toughened penalties for possession of the ultra-potent opioid fentanyl, and a task force led by Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg cracked down on rogue businesses in the drug treatment industry that put profits ahead of patients.
Gov. Rick Scott declared opioid abuse to be a public health emergency, drawing down $27 million in federal funding that will be used mostly to fund medication-assisted treatment, such as Suboxone and Vivitrol, that helps to wean people off opioids.
But those dollars can’t be used to expand rehab services for indigent patients or fund central-receiving facilities, which are designed to keep people with mental illness and drug addiction out of jails.
Excluding those dollars — which are restricted in how they can be used — funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment declined by $11 million, according to an analysis by the Florida Council for Community Mental Health. Florida consistently nationally on per-person spending on mental health and substance abuse.
Hospitals are racking up massive charges as people with addiction flock to emergency rooms, officials said. People who can’t get a treatment bed are sleeping in the parking lot of the county’s publicly funded rehab in hopes of help. Coroners are overwhelmed with bodies of overdose victims.
Drug treatment and mental health providers are scrambling to deal with the loss of funding.
Alton Taylor, CEO of the Drug Abuse Foundation in Delray Beach, said he might need to eliminate 16 positions from his 170-member staff and close 40 treatment beds as a result of the federal grant expiring.
Taylor, who leads Palm Beach County’s largest publicly supported provider, said he learned of the cuts in federal funds in mid-July after his budget year had already started.
“Let’s keep some of these beds online. … Right now, you don’t need to force people into treatment,” said Taylor. “They are sleeping in my parking lot.”
If those cuts are implemented fully, Palm Beach County would only have 160 publicly funded beds to serve a population of nearly 1.4 million people.
John Dow, CEO of the South Florida Behavioral Health Network, said the agencies he handles funding for in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties will also face layoffs. He said he’s still determining how many will people will be affected by the $4.4 million reduction he received.
Silvia Quintana, CEO of Broward Behavorial Health Coalition, could not be reached for comment this week.
Orlando Sentinel staff writers Kate Santich and Gray Rohrer contributed to this report.