Jacksonville, FL - Hoping to fight what they’re calling an emergent problem, Jacksonville’s City Council has approved $1,467,289 for a pilot program to battle opioid addiction.
The vote came with lengthy debate, as some Council members questioned the process by which the pilot program was put forward. The bill was filed for expedited consideration, with supporters saying they wanted to launch the program as quickly as possible because of the number of lives being claimed by opioid overdoses. Some Council members questioned whether the pilot program had been fully thought out, whether all of the needed pieces were in place, and whether they had thoroughly vetted the funding that would be put forward.
Ultimately, the fight for the pilot program won, with 16 votes. Councilman Danny Becton was the only vote against, while Councilman Matt Schellenberg and Councilman Aaron Bowman weren’t present.
“It is the first step in what will be a long journey, but doing nothing and continuing to repeat this folly is no longer an option,” says Councilman Bill Gulliford, who sponsored the bill.
The program aims to funnel relevant patients to an ER that partners in this program, to medically stabilize them. At this point, the program organizer says St. Vincent’s is “fully on board”, after UF Health pulled out of the program. The patient and that person’s family would then be connected to a “recovery peer specialist” and further community resources and treatment options. The intent is to keep users out of the “pipeline”, where they consistently go back to using potentially dangerous drugs, instead of staying clean. The program has residential beds to treat about 100 people per month, with the program lasting six months overall.
Dr. Raymond Pomm, with Gateway Community Services and River Region Human Services, will lead the program, and he told the Council he plans to review how the pilot is being implemented on a weekly basis with other partners. There was some question- led by Councilman Garrett Dennis- of whether Council should allocate the entire funding at once, or start with half and only give the balance after a three month status report. That effort was ultimately withdrawn, following Pomm’s concerns about the limits that would place on their ability to launch and work the pilot, as well as continuity of care.
JFRD Lieutenant Mark Rawley, who would also be involved in running the program, further says Pomm would be required to submit monthly funding requests, and that JFRD would not just be issuing the funding in “blank checks”. One amendment which was approved ahead of the vote puts financial oversight of the program in the hands of Jacksonville’s Chief Financial Officer, instead of with JFRD- although all indications are that the monthly requests and approvals will still take place.
The heat of the debate came as Becton urged other Council members not to be “guilt tripped” in to voting for the pilot, adding that he wasn’t satisfied with the documentation and planning that had taken place on the pilot up to this point.
“Only in government can you take this page right here [the bill] and give away $1.4 million on a hope and a prayer and guilt 19 Council members to death about people dying,” Becton says.
That sentiment was added on to by Councilman Reggie Brown, who questioned why this issue should be something the City tackles as an emergency, as opposed to other community needs and health concerns.
Councilman Tommy Hazouri turned that around, saying the Council “should be guilt tripped”.
“I’m guilty of not doing enough six months ago. This is an emergency because it’s an issue that we have not addressed,” he says.
JFRD and the Medical Examiner’s Office fielded questions from Gulliford about the rising human and fiscal cost of these overdoses and deaths. Both organizations are seeing a rise in overdose deaths- for JFRD, that means more money going toward Narcan and overdose transports; for the Medical Examiner it means serious space constraints, as more overdose deaths come in to their office. Gulliford says the trend is moving in the wrong direction, and action is needed now.
“The opioid epidemic is killing people from all walks of life, even white collar professionals who don’t fit the stereotype of drug addicts in seedy urban alleyways,” Gulliford says.
That was still not enough to satisfy some of the Council members, even though all but one would ultimately vote in favor. Those who spoke in opposition of the bill largely said they supported the concept of the fight against opioids, but not this specific bill.
“Think about this moment, because there are going to be others that are going to come up and ask for some kind of emergency. And I want you to think back- we did it for one, then we’re going to have to do it for somebody else because we are setting a precedent that it can be done,” says Councilman Reggie Gaffney.
Pomm says other organizations and even other states are looking at this pilot program as something to potentially model their own efforts after in the future. He says the Florida Department of Children and Families wants to follow the program, and the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association is thinking it could be a national model.
“It puts the Bold New City on the map for a different reason now- for saving lives,” says Councilman Jim Love.
Pomm hopes to have the program running within the next two months. He says as soon as the funding is available, he will move forward with hiring a few key staffers, but they already have the beds and some of the specialty services ready to go. There is no immediate plan for funding this program beyond the six month pilot, but Pomm and Gulliford say they intend to explore all available avenues, including the City, community partners, other grants, and the private sector.
Jacksonville’s Chief Financial Officer says the Administration supports tackling this problem.