U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis recently was back in his Tampa Bay home district and spent time with people working on the front lines in the battle against opioid addiction.
One stop was at a community meeting at AdventHealth Center Ice, in Wesley Chapel, where he met with members of the public and representatives of Live Tampa Bay — an organization that’s focused on drastically reducing deaths from opioid addiction.
Bilirakis offered big-picture thoughts on the opioid epidemic and discussed wide-ranging efforts he’s involved with to address it.
“Currently, fentanyl is the leading cause of death in the nation for individuals ages 18 to 45,” said Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th congressional district.
“Folks, this is a national emergency. We must treat it like one. Our kids are dying. Our kids are dying.
“Sadly, the epidemic of substance abuse disorder and addiction continue to have far-reaching consequences that touch every community, every demographic and every single one of us,” the congressman said.
“Tragically, despite historic increases in federal funding in recent years to tackle this issue, the problem is only getting worse.
“With provisional data, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) estimates that over 107,000 Americans died of a drug overdose during the past year, with Florida having particularly alarming numbers, with over 7,000 overdose deaths,” Bilirakis said.
“This is an issue that we must attack in different ways,” said the congressman, who has authored several pieces of successful legislation taking aim at the problem.
He shared insights he’s gleaned from meeting with people who are on the front line of responding to the crisis.
He cited Tampa Bay’s notorious history of illegal pill mills.
“When government stepped up and put a stop to the pill mills, law enforcement saw a huge surge in abusive, illegally trafficked, illicit street drugs, including heroin and synthetic opioids and stimulant drugs, like meth (methamphetamine),” he said.
Criminals will find a way to provide illegal substances, so getting to the root of the problem is crucial, Bilirakis said.
“We know that the issue of substance abuse and mental health are inextricably linked. For years, I’ve been working on legislation to address our nation’s broken mental health system.
“I’m proud to tell you that this is a bipartisan issue folks. (U.S. Rep.) Kathy Castor works with me on this issue. We both sit on the Energy and Commerce committee, and we’re both senior members of the health subcommittee,” he said.
While progress has been made, much work remains, Bilirakis said.
“Too many barriers still exist for getting someone the help they need.
“I recently held a roundtable discussion with federal and local law enforcement officials, public health officials, behavioral health providers and emergency room physicians, to discuss mental health and substance abuse disorder.
“These are the professionals in our community who are battling this epidemic every single day.
“I believe you must look to them for guidance on the ways we can all work together to find more effective solutions.
“Their stories were both powerful and heartbreaking.
“The law enforcement officials identified that they are navigating two distinct concerns. One being (the) trafficking rings and the other being illicit drug users.
“They made it clear that this is a public health crisis, one that we cannot arrest our way out of. “They felt strongly that instead of utilizing incarceration that we need to expand our available treatment options,” Bilirakis said.
Law enforcement officials also told the congressman that they’re seeing “almost every type of drug being laced with fentanyl or other synthetic opioids. Very scary, ladies and gentlemen. Very scary.’”
There’s also counterfeit vaping pens, marijuana and prescription pills that are manufactured to appear identical to their counterparts, Bilirakis said. As a result, unsuspecting users ingest substances that have been laced with fentanyl and overdose.
Law enforcement told Bilirakis they also need more resources to battle illicit distribution and drug use.
Another issue is the shortage of licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health counselors, and others who can provide assistance to people struggling with mental health and substance addiction issues, Bilirakis said.
“This is definitely an urgent need,” he said.
The gap in insurance — relating to providing coverage for residential health care — makes that option out of financial reach for many.
And, even when families use their life savings to procure residential treatment for a family member, it’s difficult for them to discern the best provider, Bilirakis added.
“Stable care is such a vital component, in ensuring patients do not relapse,” he added.
Emergency room physicians are overburdened, too.
When Bilirakis talked to them, they estimated that roughly half of their time is spent addressing patients who are suffering from mental health or substance abuse disorder issues.
The problem touches everyone’s life, to some degree, Bilirakis said.
“Our neighbors, our friends, our families are struggling and they need help,” Bilirakis said.
Despite the difficulties and the work that remains, Bilirakis said he knows it’s a battle that can be won.
“I have hope,” Bilirakis said, mentioning individuals he’s met who received quality treatment and are living happy and fulfilling lives.
“Federal, state and local officials must work in tandem — that’s the key, collaboration — with nonprofits and private organizations, to generate and implement solutions.
“Together, I’m optimistic that we can, and we will, win this fight,” he said.
Live Tampa Bay mobilizes business, faith, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders in the Tampa Bay region who are dedicated to the mission of reducing opioid deaths.
Here are statistics from the organization’s research:
- Tampa Bay’s opioid overdose rate of 23.3 per 100,000 population is 9.75% higher than the State of Florida, and 50.5% higher than the nation.
- Experts estimate that the economic impact of the opioid epidemic on Tampa Bay is roughly $25 billion lost each year in gross regional product, with 35,000 workers sidelined from the labor force.
- Nearly three people a day die in Tampa Bay from an opioid overdose, totaling 1,024 deaths in 2019.
For more information, visit LiveTampaBay.org.
Published August 24, 2022