CAPITOL ROUNDUP: Tough issues, questions await state lawmakers

TALLAHASSEE | A few new faces, and some familiar ones that sprouted hipster beards over the summer, joined the hubbub in the Capitol for the first week of committee meetings before the legislative session kicks off in January.

 

Even apart from the newbies this week, a bustling downtown Tallahassee bore a somewhat different aura than it has over the past few years as lobbyists, lawmakers, aides and onlookers prepared for the 60-day crush looming on the horizon.

Visitors are forced to pick their way across a Capitol courtyard maze scarred by what feels like a perpetual makeover with no end in sight.

Hurricane Irma put the kibosh on a multi-year run in which the state was flush with cash, setting up budget-related food fights.

Horror stories about the state’s opioid epidemic — including one about a toddler left alone for days in an apartment with his dead mother, who had overdosed — dominated meetings where lawmakers struggled to come up with fixes for what one doctor called “chemical warfare.”

Legislators also delved into another grim policy issue, sparked by the deaths of 14 seniors who had been residents of a Broward County nursing home that turned into a hot box after Hurricane Irma knocked out air conditioning last month.

And they explored even more fallout from storms — literally, in the case of citrus farmers.

But even the dreary wasn’t all bad. The fresh round of committee meetings presented an opportunity to remedy the state’s woes.

The Brazilian poet Ana Lins dos Guimaraes Peixoto, who wrote under the pseudonym Cora Coralina, offered some great advice for a fresh start that could serve as a guide as the 2018 legislative session heats up.

“Recreate your life, always, always. Remove the stones, plant rose bushes and make sweets,” she wrote. “Begin again.”

STORM SETS STAGE FOR STATE SPENDING

Irma’s taken its toll in myriad ways throughout the state, and the tab for the storm is climbing.

So far, hurricane recovery efforts have cost the state budget more than $141 million and are likely to increase, the Senate budget committee learned Thursday.

“The news isn’t good,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said. “And I don’t think it’s fake news either.”

Gov. Rick Scott authorized extra spending in a series of budget amendments, using his emergency powers invoked because of Hurricane Irma.

The amendments include money spent on the Florida National Guard; food, ice, water and transportation; debris removal; mosquito control; and the operation of the state Division of Emergency Management.

Additionally, Scott has authorized a $25 million interest-free loan program for citrus farmers, whose crops were devastated by the storm, and another $10 million “bridge” loan program.

Growers reported crop losses of 40 percent to 100 percent after Irma swept through the state a month ago, resulting in what Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam called “a double kick in the gut.”

Scott and Putnam met with Florida’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., this week, seeking federal help for the citrus industry, which suffered an estimated $761 million in losses from the storm.

“If you were to go into an orange grove in Florida right now, you could stand there and hear fruit hitting the ground,” Putnam said.

FUROR OVER NURSING HOMES UNABATED

The heat over nursing homes and air conditioners escalated this week, in the Capitol and in the courts.

Long-term care providers squared off Thursday against the Scott administration in a legal challenge to emergency rules that require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators that can power air-conditioning systems for as long as four days.

Industry groups LeadingAge Florida, the Florida Assisted Living Association and Florida Argentum challenged the validity of the emergency rules, which were issued after eight residents of a sweltering Broward County nursing home died last month. Six more residents died later after being evacuated.

Hurricane Irma knocked out the air conditioning at the nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which did not have a backup generator for the cooling system.

“The emergency rules simply require these licensed facilities to take the steps necessary to ensure that they can shelter in place their frail and elderly residents and patients at temperatures at or below 80 degrees for 96 hours,” Steve Ecenia, a private lawyer representing the Scott administration, said in an opening statement.

But the industry groups have argued that the emergency rules are unrealistic, in part because the regulations would require installation of generators within 60 days.

“There is no emergency that requires the imposition of an impossible deadline and the imminent revocation and imposition of fines on assisted living facility and nursing home licenses throughout the state,” LeadingAge Florida attorneys Seann Frazier and Marc Ito wrote in the organization’s challenge.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Dennis Baxley, a funeral director, was forced to issue an apology Thursday for questioning whether the nursing home deaths were related to Hurricane Irma or were an inevitability given the residents’ advancing ages.

“Look at the population. You’re dealing with the 90-somethings. Some of these deaths would naturally occur, storm or no storm,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said Wednesday at the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, adding “eventually everyone who was in that nursing home will die. But we don’t need to attribute those all to the storm and bad policy.”

After an outcry from Senate Democrats and others, Baxley apologized, saying he has spent his “entire adult life working with families who are grieving the loss of a loved one.”

“Many of the funeral services we coordinate involve elder members of our community, and I take great pride in the opportunity to ensure their lives are honored and celebrated. No family member should have to fear that their loved one is suffering in a nursing home, particularly during a natural disaster,” Baxley said.

But Jeff Nova, whose 71-year-old mother, Gail Nova, was a resident of the Broward nursing home and died Sept. 13, wasn’t comforted by Baxley’s prepared apology.

“His first comments were the real comments. That’s what he thought of, and naturally that’s what you’re going to take to heart,” Nova said in a telephone interview with The News Service of Florida. “You can say you are sorry, but it doesn’t take back what you actually said because it’s committed to memory now and it’s in print.”

LAWMAKERS TAKE ON `CHEMICAL WARFARE’

Emergency doctors, treatment providers, law enforcement officials and insurance company executives appeared at Senate meetings this week and laid out a litany of woes detailing the severity and complexity of the opioid epidemic in Florida.

Testimony from the experts made a chilling impression.

Abuse of prescription painkillers, fake street pills and street drugs such as heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl — and the deaths associated with the drugs — have skyrocketed since lawmakers cracked down on “pill mills” six years ago.

There aren’t enough treatment beds. Access to medically assisted treatment — where addicts receive drugs and other services, such as cognitive behavioral therapy — is limited. A stigma associated with addiction keeps many users in the shadows. The system is disjointed, making it difficult for addicts and their families to navigate.

And nearly all the entities involved — physicians, treatment providers and sheriffs and police departments — are struggling to make do with scarce resources as the number of addicts continues to soar.

Heroin overdoses jumped by 1,000 percent between 2007 and 2015, and most experts agree the number of deaths is much higher than what is being reported by the state’s medical examiners.

Overdoses related to fentanyl, which is often mixed with heroin, are also climbing.

“Currently, it’s much easier to get high than it is to get help in Florida,” Aaron Wohl, an emergency room physician from Lee County, told the Senate Health Policy Committee.

The opioid epidemic prompted Scott to declare a public emergency, and he’s asking for $50 million to address the crisis next year.

Substance-abuse treatment providers on Thursday also asked Latvala’s committee for $50 million to deal with what at least one doctor called “chemical warfare.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers held the first full week of committee meetings in advance of the 2018 legislative session, focusing on the budget, Hurricane Irma and the state’s opioid epidemic.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Nobody’s dying because oranges fell off of a tree.” — Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, asking Gov. Rick Scott to release $20 million in emergency funds to address the state’s opioid crisis. Scott recently authorized $25 million in emergency loans for citrus farmers impacted by Hurricane Irma.

 

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