TALLAHASSEE - As states like Florida struggle to combat a drug-addiction blight, President Donald Trump this week said he was doing his part by declaring a long-awaited public health emergency.
The declaration, which frees up some federal resources and loosens some regulations, doesn't include funding to fight the opioid epidemic responsible for skyrocketing numbers of overdose deaths in Florida and elsewhere.
Trump wants Congress to foot an unspecified amount of money for the opioid epidemic, arguing that the country spends beaucoup amounts on far less-important matters.
“We give away billions and billions of dollars a year, and we're going to be spending lots of money on coming up with a non-addictive solution,” he said Thursday.
The president also revealed that his brother, Fred, engaged in a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. His brother's affliction prompted Trump to eschew alcohol, he said.
“To this day, I've never had a drink,” Trump said.
Gov. Rick Scott also declared a public health emergency in Florida this summer because of opioids.
Scott's a loyal Trump supporter and a regular on the White House guest list.
The Florida governor has also used his own brother's lifelong battle with booze and drugs to illustrate empathy for families coping with similar circumstances. Scott's made opioids one of his chief legislative priorities for the 2018 legislative session.
Perhaps the Republican leaders' revelations will help shed the shame of addiction keeping addicts, and their families, in the shadows. The stigma is one of the biggest barriers to treatment on both a societal and personal level, according to experts.
Or maybe such a notion is grandiose, and, as a culture, people will become inured to the deaths of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children as lives get converted into statistics.
It's not the first time the country has undertaken a massive campaign to fight what Trump this week called a national “scourge.”
Remember the anti-drug “Just Say No” program? The Reagan-era effort was eventually dropped after researchers found it had little effect.
But right now, Americans have to “confront reality, right smack in the face, that millions of our fellow citizens are already addicted” and need help, according to Trump. “That's the reality,” he said.
WHERE'S THE WEED?
At the same time they're grappling with the opioid pandemic, Florida lawmakers are sifting through snags in the state's nascent medical-marijuana industry.
Christian Bax, Florida's pot czar, got an earful this week from disgruntled senators who complained about his office's failure to issue new medical-marijuana licenses. Lawmakers also criticized lengthy delays encountered by patients applying for state-issued medical-marijuana ID cards.
Bax blamed the licensing holdup on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of part of a new law that required health officials to issue 10 new marijuana licenses by Oct. 3.
The lawsuit cited by Bax deals with a portion of the law that reopened the application process and ordered the Department of Health to grant five licenses by Oct. 3, after it approved five other new licenses in August. One of the licenses in the second batch must go to a grower who had been part of settled lawsuits, known as the “Pigford” cases, about discrimination against black farmers by the federal government.
Columbus Smith, a black farmer from Panama City, is asking a Tallahassee judge to stop the Department of Health from moving forward with the application process, something Bax said has prevented him from obeying the Legislature's directive.
“The prospect of moving forward of accepting licenses with the injunctive hearing looming creates both a logistical and legal problem,” Bax, a lawyer, told the Senate Health Policy Committee on Tuesday.
But committee Chairwoman Dana Young, R-Tampa, wasn't satisfied with Bax's justification.
“I hear what you're saying, but doesn't it seem a bit complacent for you to simply throw your hands up and say, `Oh, we cannot issue. We've been sued. Oh no.' You all get sued all the time,” an exasperated Young, also a lawyer, said. “You have a duty under our state laws to issue these licenses, regardless of whether some plaintiff files a lawsuit.”
Bax also came under fire for the time it's taking his staff to process applications for medical-marijuana ID cards, which are necessary for patients to purchase the marijuana treatments.
He pledged that the ID process would be expedited as soon as a private company took over, as required in the new law. Bax told the Senate panel Tuesday that his office would be entering a contract with a vendor within a few days.
Actually, the Department of Health had already issued an intent to award the contract to Jacksonville-based Veritec LLC. But on Thursday, rejected bidder Automated Health Solutions Inc. told the state it planned to protest the decision.
The protest will postpone the privatization of the ID cards until February, adding to lawmakers' frustrations.
Bax has maintained that his office processes applications for the cards within 30 days, if the applications are complete.
But Sen. Lauren Book contradicted Bax this week, saying she personally applied for a card, and it took more than three months before she received it.
Bax's staff “is not processing patient ID cards in the way that they're representing,” Book said in a telephone interview.
“I know that they're not. I've done it myself,” the Plantation Democrat said.
HEFTY IRMA PRICE TAG GETTING HEAVIER
Potential insurance losses caused by Hurricane Irma have topped the $5 billion mark, the storm is estimated to have leveled a $2 billion wallop to the Florida's agriculture industry, and now the state's largest utility wants to recoup $1.3 billion from customers for costs associated with the storm.
Florida Power & Light will ask state regulators to approve the request. If the Public Service Commission signs off on the plan, costs would start showing up in customers' bills in March --- just as they get done paying off costs from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
“FPL's storm reserve fund was fully depleted by hurricanes Hermine and Matthew last year, and as with most states across the U.S., the costs of responding to major natural disasters are not covered by the regular rates paid by electric customers in Florida,” FPL spokesman David McDermitt said in an email Thursday. “We understand that no one wants to pay more for energy or any other service, and we plan to request permission from the Florida Public Service Commission to recover Hurricane Irma recovery costs over the next few years to keep the impact on electric rates more manageable for FPL customers.”
Irma was significantly more expensive for FPL --- which drew heat for the length of time it took to restore power to customers in the Miami area --- than Hurricane Matthew, which hammered parts of the East Coast in 2016, though it never made landfall in the state.
The PSC in February approved a request from FPL to recover $318.5 million in costs related to Matthew.
FPL began collecting the Matthew costs in March and is expected to finish in February 2018. For a residential customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a month, Matthew has added $3.36 to monthly bills.
Under the new proposal, that same FPL customer would start paying $4 a month in Irma charges in March 2018 --- effectively seeing a 64-cent increase because of the end of the Matthew charges in February, according to the utility. The monthly amount would increase to about $5.50 in 2019, with the storm costs expected to be paid off by the end of 2020.