State health officials stopped in Jacksonville Wednesday to hear about how opioid abuse is affecting Northeast Florida. It was their fourth stop on a state tour, set up by Governor Rick Scott.
In Jacksonville last year, the overdose death rate was four times higher than the murder rate. But 27-year-old Tiffany Kerns isn’t part of that statistic. About five years ago she started using heroin. She condensed her story into two minutes and testified during the standing-room-only meeting in hopes of reaching someone who might be struggling with addiction.
“Just by hearing from an addict, someone who understands you, has always helped me,” she said.
Kerns spoke about going into heart failure at 22, spurts of homelessness and having her child taken from her. Then she went to Gateway treatment center in Jacksonville.
“I now have a full-time job,” she said. “I know currently because of Gateway … my family does talk to me again and I do get to speak to my daughters.”
Gateway Medical Director Dr. Raymond Pomm, who also directs Jacksonville's River Region treatment center, has been trying to secure funding for a pilot program, linking treatment centers and emergency rooms.
“The healthcare system is siloed,” he said.
His plan includes connecting addicts with trained peers in recovery, while using drugs that will reduce Fentanyl cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
“Fentanyl withdrawal is worse than you could ever imagine,” Pomm said.
And Pomm said while the number of overdose deaths from the medical examiner’s office has increased, the numbers are actually much higher because an autopsy isn’t given to every person who dies from opioids.
“Take the numbers, multiply it,” Pomm said. “We don't even know.”
He said he wants support from the whole community to help fund the pilot.
“Private, public, hopefully help from the federal and state government, private companies, hospitals, everyone,” he said. “When I say create a seamless network, I want industry involved in this. Their employees are being affected."
At the same time, Governor Rick Scott is declaring opioid use a public-health emergency. He signed an executive order Wednesday directing $27 million in federal funding to be distributed in communities like Jacksonville to prevent and treat heroin addiction.
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Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at email@example.com, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.