Pubdate: Sat, 12 Aug 2017
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2017 The Tribune Co.
Author: John Romano, Times Columnist


The girls knew the rules, and especially the consequences. Their
father would never raise a hand to them, but he was an aficionado of
understated punishments.

Grab a pen and paper, he would tell his two daughters, and come sit at
the kitchen table. Write down what you did wrong, and how you plan on
correcting it. Sign it, date it and make sure you spelled everything

Frank Vazquez fretted enough about Cylea and Leliana that he wouldn't
let them spend the night with friends because of all of the things
that might go on in other homes. And he was like a doorman at a fancy
high-rise when it came to who got past the threshold to visit his girls.

He did all this while addicted to opioids.

A traffic accident years earlier had messed up one leg, and the
prescription painkillers messed up everything else. When pharmacies in
Gulfport stopped filling his prescriptions, he turned to dealers. And
when pills got scarce, he turned to heroin and fentanyl.

A year ago, when the girls were 14 and 15 and their mom was at work,
they called their grandmother. Their dad, they said, was slumped on
the bed. He didn't seem to be breathing.

Experts say opioid addiction has reached crisis level, but it seems
more accurate to say it's at catastrophe level. We're at a point where
overdose deaths are killing more Americans in a single year than the
U.S. military had casualties in the Vietnam War. The entire war.

And in Florida, specifically around Tampa Bay, it's about to get
worse. A $20.4 million federal block grant funding substance abuse and
mental health centers recently expired, and agencies were caught
completely by surprise when word began to spread at the end of July.

The Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, which coordinates
services in Tampa Bay, is taking a $5.9 million hit. That means fewer
beds in rehab centers. That means less money for mobile crisis and
diversion teams. That means less funds for juvenile programs.

And that means county jails and emergency rooms will have to pick up
the slack.

"It's going to create big holes in our system,'' said Central Florida
CEO Linda McKinnon.

The $20.4 million was always classified as non-recurring funds, so
technically it wasn't a surprise when it disappeared. The only problem
is a lot of health funds are considered non-recurring and yet get
renewed annually. There was no warning that this grant would vanish so

Few people understand the ins and outs of substance abuse and mental
health care in Florida better than state Rep. Kathleen Peters,
R-Pasadena, and even she was stunned when budgets were released.

She immediately called Gov. Rick Scott to explain the necessity of
these funds, and to ask if there was any way the money could be
replaced. The governor said he would look into it, but seemed
satisfied that Florida was in good shape because of a different $27
million federal grant.

The problem is that the other grant is specifically earmarked to be
spent on drugs such as methadone and vivitrol, which are used to wean
addicts off opioids. None of that $27 million can be spent on
treatment centers or boots-on-the-ground services. So while big
pharmaceutical companies just got a windfall, the non-profit treatment
centers are getting whacked.

"It would be morally irresponsible to do nothing in the middle of this
crisis,'' Peters said. "And here we are, doing worse than nothing.''

What does all of this mean in real-life terms?

One of the services provided by Operation PAR in Pinellas County is a
program for addicted pregnant/postpartum women. The program is being
cut by $500,000, which means it will have to reduce beds in PAR
Village from 46 to 36.

In other words, the chances of a baby being born addicted to street
drugs just substantially increased.

"Just when we thought we were getting a little ahead of the problem,''
PAR chief operating officer Dianne Clarke said, "the rug gets pulled
out from the other end.''

At Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services (PEMHS) in
Pinellas Park, a reduction in 14 beds means patients who might benefit
from a 72-hour Baker Act evaluation could be re-directed to other
community-based centers or even shelters.

"It's really unfortunate we have this plan to get people the right
level of care, at the right time and in the right way, and we don't
have the funds to implement it,'' said PEMHS CEO Jerry Wennlund.

Making matters even worse?

It's all for naught.

There's no economic savings in exchange for the lives lost and the
babies born in the hellfire of addiction. By not adequately funding
mental health services and addiction treatment centers on the front
end, we end up spending far more money in jails, courthouses,
hospitals and foster care.

Peters said the medical bill for treating a baby addicted to opioids
is $280,000 just for the first two months of the child's life. And
that doesn't count the long-term costs for the babies who are
developmentally disabled by a mother's drug use.

"A big part of the problem is that there is a mindset that addiction
is a choice. That stigma is the biggest barrier we face,'' Peters
said. "So, okay, take out the moral argument. Take out the
compassionate argument. What you still end up with is ludicrous fiscally.''

They were together 20 years, married for 16 and often miserable for
the final five.

Brandy Vazquez could see how opioid addiction was tightening its grip
on her husband. She watched when Frank tried to go cold turkey, and he
was forced to crawl around the house because he was too disoriented to
stand. He grew despondent when construction jobs dried up, and the
family had to count on Brandy's paycheck as a dental assistant.

She kept waiting for a turning point, but it never

"Just giving someone methadone doesn't seem like the right answer,''
Brandy said. "We treat them like, 'Oh, you're a junkie, you're an
addict, it's your own fault.' And, yeah, maybe it is partly their own
fault that they got to that point, but we all screw up, we're all
human. And now he's gone, and I've been through months of hell, and my
daughters will never be the same.''
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