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Task force releases final report on 'epidemic' of newborns addicted to drugs

The Statewide Task Force on Prescription Drug Abuse & Newborns, chaired by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, released its final report on Monday, laying the groundwork for a “holistic approach” to the “epidemic” of babies born addicted to pain-killing medication.

 The task force was created during the 2012 legislative session to examine the scope of prescription drug abuse by expectant mothers, the costs associated with caring for babies with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), the long-term effects of the syndrome and prevention strategies.

The 54-page task force report, completed two years before its 2015 due date, includes these recommendations:

  • Developing a public awareness initiative.
  • More intensive verbal screening (not lab tests) as a “best practice policy” for obstetricians.
  • Developing curriculum in Florida nursing and medical schools to address addiction as a brain disease.
  • Collaborate with communities (hospital staff, medical personnel and programs like Healthy Start and Early Steps) to better coordinate services before discharging a patient.  
  • Create an immunity provision in Florida law for pregnant women seeking prenatal care or substance abuse treatment.
  • Expand residential treatment capacity, intensive outpatient treatment capacity and funding case management services to assist women leaving treatment.
  • Add NAS to the list of reportable diseases and events.

 Bondi said she expected the legislature to begin addressing many of the recommendations this session, even if increased funding isn’t available this year. “We’ve talked about it. We’ve given our recommendations … and now we have to move on it.”

  Rob Siedlecki, assistant secretary of the Department of Children and Families, said that if the state doesn’t increase funding, the agency would look at “reprioritizing some of the money we have… Pregnant women and their children are a priority population.”

 Early intervention would help keep children out of the system, Siedlecki said. DCF currently funds 361 residential substance abuse treatment beds geared toward pregnant women and women which young children.

   The task force, which includes Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, State Surgeon General John H. Armstrong and the heads of several state agencies and organizations, reports that there were 1,563 instances of newborns diagnosed with drug exposure in Florida in 2011, a three-fold increase since 2007,  but Bondi said such cases are “underreported.” 

  She pushed for the task force after being approached by a nurse from St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital in Tampa, which has found that as many as 14 percent of the infants in their neonatal intensive care unit were born addicted to prescription drugs. Hospitals aren’t required to report these cases now.

  The task force was only scheduled to turn in an interim report in January, but the members were “passionate” about implementing recommendations, Bondi said.

 The reason for urgency: Once you see one of these babies going through withdrawl, Bondi said, “it changes your life…. Their cry is like nothing I’ve ever heard – it’s a shriek. Instead of milk, they’re getting morphine or methadone. That’s how they’re entering this world and it’s heartbreaking.”

  To view the complete report, visit