As legislators crafted new laws to shut down so-called “pill mills” around the Sunshine State, they also slashed funding for the public health programs positioned to help prescription drug-addicted women and babies. That has left programs like Healthy Start — which has seen the number of drug-addicted babies in the state quadruple in five years — scrambling for help.

Over the past few years, health advocates have called upon lawmakers to address Florida’s rising epidemic of prescription drug dependency, an epidemic exacerbated by rampant prescription drug dispensaries, or “pill mills.” Last session, state legislators passed a bill that would monitor drug prescriptions in the state.

But at the same time lawmakers were fighting pill mills, they began cutting funding for programs created to help pregnant women who are already addicted to prescription drugs. Advocates warn this could lead to an epidemic of miscarriages and unhealthy newborns in the state.

Healthy Start, a publicly funded group that serves at-risk pregnant women, repeatedly called for help.

The group warned in a statement (.pdf) earlier this year that “Florida’s illegal and prescription drug epidemic is taking an alarming toll on mothers and babies, further stretching the resources of Healthy Start, hospitals and community treatment programs.”

“Babies hospitalized after birth due to drug withdrawal increased four fold between 2005 and 2010,” the group reported. “These babies can experience complex medical issues costing taxpayers millions of dollars in immediate and follow-up care.”

The medical risks for newborn babies and their mothers, as well as the rising cost of the problem, required legislative action, Healthy Start leaders argued. The organization said the state needed to “curb the supply of illicit and legal drugs in the state [and] invest in prevention and treatment programs, including Healthy Start, which care for substance involved pregnant women and newborns.”

The Legislature followed through on one of the two suggestions, passing legislation that would address the pill mill crisis. But it also slashed funding for Healthy Start, one of the few groups helping women with addictions to prescription medication during their pregnancies.

Florida’s so-called “pill mill bill,” which created a statewide prescription drug monitoring program, was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in June.

The program, mandated under former Gov. Charlie Crist, was initially opposed by Scott, who argued that it would prove too costly and invasive for Florida citizens. The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, traded barbed words with Scott’s team over the bill, arguing that some funding, through grants and private donations, had already been secured.

Though it was only recently implemented, the program has found success in Florida; the number of practitioners using it has increased nearly tenfold in the past month.

Judi Vitucci, the president of the Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions, tells The Florida independent the pill mill legislation “was a good thing.” But according to her, more needed to be done.

She says the state needs to also provide programs that offer help such as methadone treatment to women who are already addicted to pain killers and other prescription drugs. She says allowing these women to go into withdrawal during pregnancy leads to miscarriages and unhealthy babies.

According to Healthy Start:

In Florida, the number of pregnant women abusing drugs, particularly prescription drugs, has increased significantly since 2007. These include OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, Soma and the powerful new drug, Fentanyl. When women use these drugs, the second and third trimesters of pregnancy require specific medical interventions to prevent withdrawal in utero. Babies born addicted have a condition known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which requires close observation and medical intervention at a minimum for the first 28 days of life. Hospitals across Florida report that some babies are hospitalized from birth for up to 3 months, and require close follow-up after discharge.

The group warned that its programs were suffering significant cuts just as the demand for them was growing. According to the Healthy Start statement, the program saw “a 52 percent increase statewide in the number of Substance Exposed Newborns (SENs) receiving care coordination and related services since 2007.”

“This growth has occurred as significant cuts (-20 percent) were made to Healthy Start funding,” the group reported, “straining the capacity of local programs to respond to this need. The number of substance involved pregnant women served by Healthy Start decreased by six percent during this period due to inadequate program capacity and budget limitations.”

According to an “End of Session” report from the Florida House of Representatives released in June, Florida’s Healthy Start Coalitions were awarded $27.2 million in funding to provide services this year. That represented a 15 percent cut from the year before. The report from the Legislature predicted that the funding reduction “could result in 14,468 fewer clients served” or “252,573 fewer services provided.”

State officials have already announced that more cuts to social programs are ahead in 2012, due to an estimated $2 billion budget shortfall.

Florida’s chapter of March of Dimes and Healthy Start are now seeking funding for programs that address the problems that could be exacerbated by the closing of pill mills.

According to one of Healthy Start’s recent grant applications obtained by the Independent, “illegal use of prescription pain medication is increasing in Florida [and] there has been an explosion of pregnant women using opioids and women in methadone treatment for their drug problems.”

Furthermore, the Florida Department of Children and Families has found that the “number of newborns going through withdrawal from narcotics such as Oxycontin has increased more than 300% statewide since 2005,” the group writes.

“When women use prescription drugs,” the grant proposal explains, “such as the pain medication Oxycodone, they cannot simply quit taking the medications when they learn they are pregnant. The fetus can die if the opioid is withdrawn during pregnancy. Often methadone is prescribed in place of Oxycodone and the infant must experience drug withdrawal, just as an adult addict would.”

A spokesperson for Fasano says the state senator has been made aware of the rising problem in the state.

“The impact on unborn children was truly a trickle-down effect from the addicted mothers,” a Fasano spokesperson says. “When he first learned of the problem he began to educate himself regarding the needs of these innocent children who, through no fault of their own, are born addicted to powerful drugs.”

Even before the prescription drug database was implemented, Fasano had announced his intention to appropriate funds through the budget process for use in drug treatment programs. According to his aide, he still hopes to secure that funding.

Healthy Start, meanwhile, is seeking funding were it can get it. State legislators have made it clear that social programs face a tough future as state revenues plummet.  However, Vitucci says the group is taking the situation seriously and will do its best to address the problem.

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