MANATEE -- There are not enough resources for adequate prevention and treatment of heroin addiction in Manatee and Sarasota, several medical, law enforcement and government officials agreed Wednesday at a roundtable on the heroin epidemic.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, hosted the roundtable at Goodwill Manasota. Buchanan recently announced
co-sponsorship of two bills in the House to increase funding and resources to law enforcement, treatment and prevention programs looking to address the heroin epidemic throughout the United States.
Buchanan has cited statistics indicating overdose deaths have increased 900 percent in Florida in the last five years and said he has a nephew struggling with heroin addiction.
Manatee and Sarasota have been hit particularly hard by the crisis, with the local medical examiner saying at least 150 deaths occurred in those counties in 2015 due to heroin and fentanyl, a potent painkiller that has been mixed into the local heroin supply. Manatee County had the most per-capita deaths due to heroin and fentanyl in 2014, according to a report.
The 2015 report is not available yet, but overdoses and deaths decreased in the final months of 2015 and so far in 2016.
Officials have said that doesn't mean demand for treatment has slowed down.
Buchanan emphasized multiple times that, while treatment is necessary, he prefers to focus on prevention because it is more successful.
"We can't let our kids, or anyone, get caught up in this to begin with," Buchanan said. "Once they go down this road it's hard to get them back."
Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino said prevention efforts took a significant hit when programs such as DARE were eliminated from schools due to cuts in law enforcement and budgets.
"We have to get kids when they're young, when they're in kindergarten," DiPino said. "When they hit middle school, they've already been exposed to drugs."
Cathy Wilson of addiction treatment facility Centerstone Florida said schools weren't even using the free courses available because they didn't have time due to increased mandated focus on academics.
"They have to give 53 minutes for a reading block, and then 84 minutes to math, so then we have to come in at gym or during art class, and that isn't good, either," Wilson said.
Wilson said by sixth grade, students should have six years worth of character-building classes teaching them how to accomplish their goals, which gradually phase in drugs as an obstacle to those goals. Those classes have taken a significant hit in schools, and Wilson said prevention programs and money the area does have are being used the wrong way.
Buchanan said he has spoken to struggling families who said their children were fine through middle school, but they lost control once they got to high school.
"It's very easy to throw some of these kids under the bus, but you didn't grow up in their shoes," Buchanan said. "Character building is the most important thing," he added. "To me, it all starts there. Without that you have nothing."
Another branch of prevention discussed was use of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which tracks medications prescribed to patients so doctors can identify addictive behaviors. Addiction to prescription pain medication has been a large contributing factor to the heroin epidemic.
Officials said the PDMP is not being used well in Florida. Terry Gubbins, a past president of the Florida Pharmacy Association, said the resource is available to Florida doctors to check if patients have a history of drug abuse, but many don't use it.
"Many doctors say, 'Well, I don't have time,'" Gubbins said, adding a bill up for a vote this week in the Florida Legislature would allow doctors to delegate that responsibility to nurses and others in the medical field.
Gubbins said Florida's PDMP also is not connected to other states, which is an oversight in the system that should be corrected. There are 48 states with PDMPs, he said, so a federal program isn't necessary but each state's PDMP should be accessible to all.
"So if I'm in North Florida, I can check Georgia's and see if the patient is getting any from Georgia," Gubbins said.
Many treatment officials also cited a need for long-term, affordable treatment in the area. Programs like Centerstone offer detoxification and month-long residential programs, but Erin Minor, executive director of the housing and homeless service Harvest House, said that isn't enough.
"They get 28 days, but some chronic users are so long, 28 to 30 years, that 28 days is nothing," Minor said, adding families with money could send addicts off to far-away rehab facilities with long-term programs, but low-income families are often stuck.
Minor said she felt the community in Manatee and Sarasota wants to deal with the issue and support addicts however it could; it was just a matter of a lack of resources. That's where Buchanan and the government could come in, possibly through the two federal bills Buchanan is backing.
"I think the Manatee-Sarasota area can pilot this for the state, if not the nation," Minor said.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby