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FSU running back Jacques Patrick a bridge between star runners

He stands between the Best One and the Next One. For FSU running back Jacques Patrick, it’s a special place to be.

A year ago, he supported record-setting Dalvin Cook for the Seminoles. Now, he is grooming Cook’s eventual replacement in Cam Akers.

For now, however, the job belongs to Patrick.

“It gets you excited and gives you a rush, knowing a guy like that is going to be a first-round pick in the [NFL] draft, and he’s blocking for me,” Patrick told the Orlando Sentinel.

“It was a great feeling, and we’re trying to do the same thing out here. I know these guys look up to me, so I’m doing it for the group.”

Patrick, a former five-star recruit from Orlando, headlines FSU’s deep running back group that features sophomore Amir Rasul, freshman Cam Akers and seldom-used backups Ryan Green and Johnathan Vickers.

“All of them do a lot of things,” Fisher said of his running backs. “It’s not like you have to put one guy to do this, and one guy to do that. They have a very wide range skill sets.”

Patrick has rushed for 664 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career.

“It’s pretty cool because we have a lot of things we can relate to coming out of high school,” Patrick said of Akers. “Cam has been improving, and you can see the improvements each and every day. I’m happy for him. That guy is going to be really good.”

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State Rep. Cary Pigman, HD 55

Report: Cary Pigman charged with early morning DUI

State Rep. Cary Pigman faces a misdemeanor drunk-driving charge in St. Lucie County after a traffic stop late Thursday, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report.

The FHP charged the Avon Park Republican as he was driving on Florida’s Turnpike.

Pigman, first elected in 2012, is an emergency medicine physician and U.S. Army Reserve doctor who served in Iraq. He chairs the House Health Quality Subcommittee. The Legislature concluded the third week of its annual Session on Thursday. 

The arrest report says a trooper noticed Pigman’s southbound Jeep “drifting” between his lane and the highway’s shoulder around 10:45 p.m. Thursday. Pigman was alone in the vehicle.

The trooper reported “immediately smell(ing) an odor of alcoholic beverage” when he came up to the open window, and “saw an open wine bottle in the front passenger seat.” Pigman told him he was headed to Okeechobee, but the trooper noted the lawmaker was stopped in Fort Pierce, to the east.

Pigman had “a difficult time” getting out of the car when asked, and continued to “smell of alcohol,” the report said. “His pupils were constricted, his eyes were bloodshot,” but he denied drinking.

Pigman then failed field sobriety tests, including almost falling and not following instructions, the report said.

At around 12:30 a.m. Friday, his blood alcohol level was measured at .14 and .15, it added. A DUI in Florida is .08 or above. Pigman was later booked into the St. Lucie County jail.

Messages were left Friday afternoon at Pigman’s district office.

“We’re aware of the situation involving Dr. Pigman and know he will fully cooperate with authorities,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran said in a statement. “We will follow the case closely and continue to monitor the situation.”

Pigman represents House District 55, which includes Glades, Highlands and Okeechobee counties and western St. Lucie County.

The Florida Commission on Ethics last year found probable cause to believe that Pigman “link(ed) his efforts to obtain legislative funding for the (Okeechobee) School District to retaliate or attempt to retaliate” against Okeechobee County high school principal Tracy Downing, according to a statement.

Downing’s brother, Devin Maxwell, is the ex-husband of Elizabeth “Libby” Maxwell, a former district secretary for Pigman, with whom the lawmaker had been having an affair at the time, according to reports. They are now married.

Probable cause means it is more likely than not that a violation of state law has occurred but is not a definitive finding. Pigman went to a hearing before an administrative law judge in January to resolve the case; a recommended order is pending. He has denied any wrongdoing.

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Psychotropic cocktail may have contributed to Facebook Live suicide

Naika Venant. Photo credit: Facebook

Part of a psychological evaluation administered to Naika Venant in June 2015 included a sentence completion test.

For the beginning stem sentence “The thing I want to do most of all is …” the then-12-year-old girl responded: “Die happy.”

Sentence tests can provide indications of attitudes, beliefs, motivations or other mental states.

Other sentences she finished: “My best friend is … I don’t have a best friend.” “The person I’m most afraid of is … nobody.” “I would do anything to forgot the time that … I made my mom cry.”

Among 3,523 pages of records recently released by the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) about Venant’s history in the child welfare system — and her life — are details about that June 2015 evaluation, carried out by Dr. Terilee Wunderman.

(The trove of documents were only made public after The Miami Herald fought in a court of law to have them released and did not include a DCF rapid response report already public.)

The psychologist goes on to note that Naika was depressed, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and that her diagnosis for attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder by an earlier therapist was “not entirely appropriate” at the time.

Wunderman said, “there is much concern that her attention problems are due to anxiety and trauma rather than true ADHD symptomology.”

Because of that, her recommendation was to “re-evaluate” the 10 mg of Adderall Naika was prescribed due to the child’s already existing depression since one of the drug’s side effects is depression, “and Naika is coping with considerable depression related to her traumas … another regimen might better address her emotional difficulties,” it said on page 97 in the third installment of a final review of her foster care records.

She had, indeed, been through several traumas to that point. Naika was repeatedly molested and raped by another adolescent boy, 15, also a foster child, in a home with several other foster children, from April to December 2009 — when she was 7. She was Baker Acted once. She had endured physical abuse and had been exposed to sexually explicit material, and had inappropriately become sexualized at a young age.

In Jan. 2009, her biological mother arrived home to find a 4-year-old girl performing oral sex on Naika. Her mother beat her with a belt, leaving roughly 30 lashing marks all over her body — Naika then went into the foster care system, only to be raped by the 15-yr-old foster boy months later.

Her father was absent from her life and her mother struggled to keep the electric on when they were living together.

In all, Naika spent 16 months in foster care three different times, being placed in 14 different homes in the last nine months of her life, four alone in October 2016.

Less than a week before her mother finally gave up custody of Naika, her medication was ramped up.

By May 2016, she was taking 50 mg of Vyvanse, an Adderall generic. Another prescription had been added by Dr. Alon Seifan, page 110 notes on the third part of the final evaluation of her DCF foster care records:  25 mg of Sertraline, or Zoloft, a so-called ‘black-box warning’ drug. The designation comes from the Food and Drug Administration and is given to those pharmaceuticals deemed potentially hazardous.

In the case of Zoloft, it was found to have certain side effects, one of which was suicidal thoughts in children.

FloridaPolitics.com asked DCF about oversight of psychotropic drugs prescribed to children under the care of the subcontracted community-based care agencies (CBCs) handling Naika’s case, Our Kids of Miami-Dade and Monroe and the Miami Gardens-based Center for Family and Child Enrichment, Inc. (CFCE).

A rapid response report issued by DCF March 8 stated in ‘Finding A’ of the organizational assessment of Our Kids and CFCE said that “the child welfare professionals involved in this case were highly experienced and well prepared to perform their responsibilities; and while overall caseloads across the case management agency were slightly elevated, it did not have an impact in this specific circumstance.”

Case managers have the option to seek a second consultation after a first consultation when medication is prescribed for a child under their care. It is unknown if the CFCE case manager or case manager’s supervisor considered a second medical opinion on this matter. CBCs follow the same directives as DCF investigators throughout the state as dictated by Statute 39 of Florida’s judicial branch.

Jessica Sims, spokeswoman for DCF, said medicating a child was an issue that fell under the domain of parents, legal guardians or a court.

“The department does not prescribe medication,” Sims said by email Friday. “Only medical professionals, not child welfare employees, are responsible for the prescription of medication and informed consent must be obtained from a parent/legal guardian or the court. DCF does not determine what medication children take.

FloridaPolitics.com reached out to both Our Kids and CFCE for comment, but did not immediately receive a response before the publishing of this article.

It’s important to note because, on page 118 of Part 3 of the final review of Naika’s foster care records, Seifon made hand-written notes that Zoloft could induce “suicidal ideations” while Vyvanse’s potential side effect could be “sleep disturbance.

A question on the form asked how long the medications were to be prescribed. Seifon wrote, “indefinite.”

If a case manager had questioned any of this, they could have sought a second psychiatric/medical opinion based on both Seifon’s and Wunderman’s recommendations for and against prescriptions for Naika.

She hung herself in the bathroom of her final foster home in the middle of the night Jan. 22. (Her biological mother, Gina Alexis, had been made aware of the unfolding situation via a flurry of text messages, but she had no idea what address her daughter was at in the city if Miami Gardens.)

Seifon checked the “no” box on page 120 to a question on the same form documenting the psychotropic mix he was prescribing the child that asked, “Are there other treatment options available in lieu of administering the psychotropic medications recommended above?”

That was April 26, 2016.

By Dec. 8, Dr. Scott Segal doubled the Zoloft dosage to 50 mg daily and raised the Vyvanse back to 50 mg after it had been reduced to 30 mg.

A month and a half later Naika was dead.

FloridaPolitics.com attempted to reach Segal for comment, but he did not respond before the publishing of this article.

Naika’s case hauntingly parallels that of Gabriel Myers, who hung himself in the bathroom of his foster parent’s home in April 2009. Myers, who had been sexually molested, was also prescribed medication. He was 7 years old. His father was in an Ohio prison, and his mother was reported found unconscious in her car with drugs openly on display around her, which is how Myers wound up in foster care.

The Myers incident shook Florida’s child welfare system to its core and a special panel was formed to seek a way to better improve care for Florida’s foster children.

“Key initiatives from the Gabriel Myers Work Group were implemented and have been further improved over time,” Sims said. “The department’s office of child welfare recently organized a multidisciplinary review team that conducted more research on the procedures surrounding the prescription of psychotropic medication by physicians for children in care, and are exploring additional avenues of systemic improvement. Also, the CIRRT regarding this case outlined the need for enhanced coordination of care by providers and behavioral health professionals to ensure information is appropriately shared for the most effective level of care to be provided.”

But it goes beyond that, according to Howard M. Talenfeld, an attorney specializing in child welfare.

He told FloridaPolitics.com there aren’t enough therapeutic homes within Florida’s privatized child welfare structure to place children in with a complex set of problems, as was the case with Naika.

“Many children in foster care have serious behavioral problems resulting from the traumas of their abuse, removal from their natural parents, and then the further trauma of bouncing from one placement to the next,” Talenfeld, also the president of Florida Children First, said by email Thursday. “In many cases, foster children are medicated and  chemically restrained after appropriate placements, and therapeutic interventions are not made available to address the needs of these children by the private agencies responsible for their care.”

It’s a catastrophe that has repeated itself over and over, he said.

The attorney is currently providing Naika’s mother, Alexis, with advice, but is not representing her because he doesn’t counsel on behalf of adults.

He said Our Kids, which is subcontracted by DCF, handles home placements while CFCE, subcontracted by Our Kids, oversees the case management of those placements.

Dr. James Sewell, a retired assistant commissioner of the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement and child welfare consultant, was a member of the Gabriel Myers Work Group in 2009.

He said it was his understanding there were still significantly fewer therapeutic homes available to place children with specialized mental health or behavioral needs into for Florida’s foster children.

He agreed Naika’s case disturbingly resembled that of Gabriel in several ways, particularly the link between foster children with complex issues and the coupling of medication.

“He was too frequently shuffled from place to place,” Sewell by phone Friday. “All too frequently we put them on psychotropics because it’s easier for the schools or parents than really dealing with the problem. … We don’t adequately prepare caregivers or foster parents with enough resources to effectively deal with them.”

Another part of the problem, he said, was that DCF is underfunded with a large staff — currently about 13,000 — and the pay scales for that personnel are not competitive.

“(They) don’t pay worth a damn and the old adage, ‘You get what you pay for,’ is true here,” he said, referring to the state’s salary rate for DCF employees. “We need to make sure that the folks who are dealing with our children are the best and the brightest, and the most skilled.”

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Tampa Bay Rowdies welcome 2017 Season with 1,000 fans at Mahaffey Theater

The Tampa Bay Rowdies kicked off their 2017 Season Thursday night.

Rowdies officials and players were joined by over 1,000 fans at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg to welcome in the regular season.

Highlights of the night included a question and answer session with Rowdies Chairman and CEO Bill Edwards, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Rowdies COO Lee Cohen, moderated by the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s Alexis Muellner.

In the Q&A, Edwards and Baker emphasized the upcoming St. Petersburg referendum on May 2 which would allow the Rowdies to negotiate a long-term use agreement with City Council for the use of Al Lang Stadium.

As the show continued, a Rowdies midfielder debuted an all-new white alternate kit featuring a single sharp green and gold stripe on both the jersey and socks. Rowdies goalkeeper Matt Pickens debuted a new electric blue goalkeeper jersey, while Akira Fitzgerald modeled a gray version.

In addition to the white alternate kit, the Rowdies will continue to use their famed hooped jerseys and the green kits from 2016.

The party leads into Saturday’s home opener against Orlando City B. Tickets are available by calling (727) 222-2000 or online to purchase.

 

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American Medical Association sides against optometrists in Florida Eyeball Wars

The nation’s largest association of physicians is the latest group to come out against a bill at the center of Florida’s so-called “Eyeball Wars” between ophthalmologists and optometrists.

On Thursday, American Medical Association President and CEO James Madara sent a letter to House Health & Human Services Committee chair Travis Cummings, in which he called on lawmakers to reject HB 1037, a measure that seeks give optometrists expanded practice to perform a certain type of laser surgeries in Florida.

The two-page letter expresses several concerns with the bill, including the relative lack of education and experience of optometrists compared to ophthalmologists — who “possess the comprehensive medical knowledge necessary to safely perform surgical procedures on patients.”

“Patient safety and quality of care demand that patients be assured that individuals who perform invasive procedures have appropriate medical education and training,” Madara wrote. ” Quite simply, safe use of lasers and scalpels requires extensive medical education and training. Surgery on or around the human eye is not something to be taken lightly.

“The AMA strongly opposes HB 1037 because there is no way to safely perform surgical procedures without the comprehensive education and clinical training received in medical or osteopathic school,” Madara added. “The lack of specific additional education and training proposed by HB 1037 comes nowhere near this standard.”

In a procedural move, House Speaker Richard Corcoran removed HB 1037 from the schedule of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. In response, Florida Society of Ophthalmology President Adam Katz said the move — which he suggested was “orchestrated” — gave his organization one less opportunity to stop the measure from becoming law.

Supporting HB 1037 include the Florida Optometric Association, which has hired a team of a dozen lobbyists to promote the bill, including Michael Corcoran, brother of the House Speaker.

POLITICO Florida reports that March 20, the FOA hired influential Capital City Consulting lobbyist Nick Iarossi.

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Jacob Smith says intensity of electorate will help Rick Kriseman win re-election

Rick Kriseman will make his case re-election this year, mostly based upon the progress St. Petersburg has made since his inauguration as mayor in January 2014.

“We came in with a lot of really big, sort of thorny projects, and the mayor has taken a lot of them by the horns and made them happen,” says Jacob Smith, Kriseman’s newly minted campaign manager.

Among those “thorny” projects are a pathway toward a new Pier, the upcoming groundbreaking for a new police station and what Smith dubs ‘The Kriseman infrastructure plan’: the $304 million investment to fix the city’s aging pipes and sewage plants.

Smith says the mayor looks forward to having a “public conversation” with voters on infrastructure overhaul. Kriseman is also poised to give details about how the money will be spent, where the revenues to pay for it will come from, and what shape the project will ultimately take.

“A lot of people will say that they don’t know — they know we’re spending that money, but they don’t know exactly what the mechanics of that project are,” Smith said.

The infrastructure plan emerged after what is inescapably Kriseman’s lowest moment as mayor — his handling of the sewage situation late last summer.

After a whistleblower had come forth September alleging the mayor falsely claimed millions of gallons of wastewater spilled from a treatment plan wasn’t a safety hazard, lawmakers called for more oversight. That resulted in the Department of Environmental Protection laying down a mandate for fixing the problem or pay a significant penalty.

Smith prefers to look at the sunnier side of that imbroglio, saying that the mayor deserves props for finally acting on a decades-in-the-making problem in regards to sewage management.

The 27-year-old Smith is a Fort Lauderdale native who was Kriseman’s field director during the 2013 campaign and has added a lot more to his CV since then.

After the mayor’s decisive victory over Bill Foster in November 2013, he went to work immediately on Alex Sink‘s bid for Congress in the special election against David Jolly.

In 2014, he worked as a field director for Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial effort and then began work from the start in early 2015 on Hillary Clinton‘s run for the White House. He was living in Brooklyn before moving down to St. Petersburg recently to devote all his energies to the mayor’s race.

Discussion about the sewage situation segues quickly into more positive news, such as an online Fiscal Times report published in January that of the most fiscally stable cities showed that St. Petersburg was listed as the 23rd best city in the country (of cities of more than 200,000 population) and first in Florida.

“Since Mayor Kriseman has taken office, St. Petersburg’s credit rating has gone up, and we’ve become a city more attractive to lenders,” says Smith. “We’ve been called the most financially responsible city in the state.”

Conventional wisdom has it that only one man stands between Kriseman and another four years in office — former Mayor Rick Baker.

There is no bigger guessing game in St. Pete politics than figuring out what Baker will do. Smith says it won’t matter who his main opponent is, Kriseman continue to do his thing.

A favorite criticism among Republicans is that Kriseman has been too partisan.

“Since 2013 Mayor Rick Kriseman has shown he is committed to progressive, left wing policies that have done nothing to improve the quality of life the City of St. Petersburg has come to expect,” says Nick DiCeglie, chair of the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee.

“This absent leadership has led to an infrastructure failure that has resulted in raw sewage being dumped into Tampa Bay. This is unacceptable and change must and will occur in city hall later this year.”

Referring to his support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality and respect for immigrant rights, Smith says that the mayor represents the values that St. Pete residents believe in. “What the mayor really wants is a city that is welcoming to all, that respects everyone and that we are living up to our best potential and our best values,” he says.

There is no question that the Democratic left has been energized since last fall’s election. In January, Kriseman took part in the Women’s’ March, an event that drew more than 20,000 to the downtown area, the largest such rally in the city’s history.

Smith predicts the intensity among progressive voters will have implications in the mayoral contest and appears to have Baker on his mind when he thinks of who their main opponent will be.

“At the end of the day, Rick Kriseman has always stood by Barack Obama, endorsed Hillary Clinton. Campaigned for her,” he says. “Any opponent he gets is going to be on the other side of the issue, right?”

“It’s going to be somebody who stood on stage with people like Sarah PalinPaul Ryan, Mitt Romney, where Rick Kriseman was out knocking on doors for Barack Obama, right?” he says. “I think that is a dynamic that will absolutely come into this race. A lot of the most fired up people right now are the people who stand with Rick on a lot of issues.”

Whether it’s Baker, Foster or another Republican who will step up and try to take down the incumbent, it’s getting close to the time when that candidate will have to step up.

The Kriseman campaign announced this week he has the backing of half the current City Council in November and has already raised $260,000.

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Florida cities among the biggest population gainers

Three metro areas in Florida were among the nation’s 10 biggest gainers in the number of people moving there last year, and another three Florida metro areas were in the top 10 for overall growth rates.

The U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday said the Tampa area had the nation’s fourth-highest gain from people moving there last year. Some 58,000 new residents moved there.

South Florida had the nation’s seventh-highest gain from migration, adding about 48,000 residents who moved there.

Orlando added nearly 47,000 residents through migration, placing it at No. 8.

Those three metro areas also were in the nation’s top 10 for overall population growth — which includes natural population increases and migration.

South Florida grew by nearly 65,000 residents from births and migration, and its population stood at more than 6 million last year.

The Tampa area grew to 3 million residents last year, adding 61,000 residents through natural increases and migration. Orlando grew overall by nearly 60,000 residents and had a population of 2.4 million residents last year.

The Villages community northwest of Orlando had the nation’s highest overall growth rate last year at 4.3 percent.

Fort Myers had the fifth highest at 3.1 percent. Punta Gorda’s 3 percent rate placed it at No. 8.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Darryl Paulson: Do universities discriminate? Promoting ideological diversity, free speech in U.S. universities

In the previous three pieces, I have written about how university hiring policies have led to the virtual exclusion of conservatives on college faculties. We have seen how universities have wrapped students in a protective cocoon to prevent them from hearing speech that might be offensive with the use of speech codes, safe spaces, and micro-aggressions. Finally, we have seen how the academy has abandoned its mission of exposing students to diverse views and it some cases has actually encouraged students to shout down speakers with unpopular views.

Can anything be done to encourage universities to fulfill their mission of fostering diversity in all areas, including ideological diversity? This will not be easy, especially in the age of Trump. Liberal college campuses are more likely to dig in their heels and protect the academy from the evils of Trumpism. The situation will probably grow worse, not better in most campuses.

We need to foster ideological diversity for the same reasons we need racial and gender diversity. Universities should reflect the communities they represent, and this is clearly not the case today.

Former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell argued in a 1978 case that diversity was essential to a universities mission. The more diverse the faculty and student body, the more robust will be the exchange of ideas.

Yale University law professor Peter Schuck, in his book Diversity in America, contends that faculty have a “higher responsibility to our standards, ourselves and our disciplines that our preferences for ideological homogeneity and faculty-lounge echo chambers betray.”

Echoing that sentiment, John McGinnis of Northwestern Law School writes that “liberal ideas might well be strengthened and made more effective if liberals had to run a more conservative gauntlet among their own colleagues when developing them.”

The growing conservative attack on higher education by state legislators should come as no surprise. Decades of liberal orthodoxy have led conservative legislators to cut university funding and impose more programmatic controls. Why would any group provide financial support to another institution that constantly demeans conservative ideas and values and refuses to hire them on their faculty?

It is in the best interest of universities to improve ideological diversity for two primary reasons: it is the right thing to do, and the university will reap financial benefits.

Approaches to ideological Diversity

Some universities, including Harvard, Penn State, the University of Texas and others have adopted “conservative coming out days.” I am not sure if this means that faculty who have not come out as conservatives should declare their philosophy, or that universities should seek out conservative faculty through affirmative action. Most conservatives would reject an affirmative action approach.

Other universities are showcasing their commitment to ideological diversity by creating a specific faculty line for conservatives. The University of Colorado created an endowed chair in Conservative Thought and Policy.

One or two conservative hires hardly indicates a commitment to a diversified faculty. I am not sure that any faculty member wants to be viewed as the “conservative hire.” Will students and faculty come to his or her office to see what a conservative looks like?

Some conservatives have pushed for the adoption of the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) created by conservative activist David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture. The Bill of Rights contains eight provisions relating to faculty recruitment and hiring, free speech, research and campus speakers.

A number of state legislatures have adopted the Academic Bill of Rights over the opposition of the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and several other groups. Critics argue that ABOR “infringes academic freedom in the very act of purporting to protect it.”

Money, or the lack of money, is the lifeblood of a university. Some conservatives have urged alumna should withhold financial support for their university until it supports ideological diversity.

Universities must end their policies of Groupthink which excludes conservative students and faculty from meaningful participation in university life. Speech codes and safe spaces must end, as well as the coddling of easily offended students. Safe places do not foster education, but create an unreal scenario of what students will face in the real world.

Too often, universities have smothered free speech rather than fostering it. When students demand safe places, they often mean I disagree with your ideas, so shut up!

Too often, universities have become home to Orwellian offices such as the Office for Diversity and Inclusion. That is fine for groups and ideas that have the universities seal of approval, but it often means the “not welcome” sign is posted for unpopular and undesirable groups.

The election of Donald Trump has led to a surge in the sale of George Orwell’s 1984. New print runs have occurred to keep up with the growing demand for the book. I would just remind readers that Orwell’s book was not directed at any specific individual or philosophy, but at authoritarianism in all of its forms.

The clash of ideas is the real mission of a university. How can the clash of ideas be heard if not all of the parties are allowed to express their views? How can universities promote diversity in race, gender and sexual orientation, but neglect ideological diversity?

Ideological diversity will benefit the university intellectually, as well as financially. We must end the ideological homogeneity that dominates higher education and put an end to what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”

___

Darryl Paulson is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

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Joe Henderson: Gus Bilirakis keeps up fight to get medical drugs to market faster, easier

Anyone facing a dreaded disease themselves or watching a loved one go through it knows the frustration of seeking treatment. They want to know the system is on their side, but often it seems rigged against them.

I think it’s safe to conclude U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th District, is on their side. He has been a champion for increasing medical options.

In 2014, along with Democrat Kathy Castor, he was part of the congressional bipartisan 21st Century Cures initiative that sought to speed up the process for getting new life-saving drugs to market.

And while all the focus has been on the fate of the Affordable Care Act, Bilirakis took the opportunity of a hearing about the over-abundance of regulations at the Food and Drug Administration to push for a measure that would provide incentives for drug companies to develop treatments for rare diseases affecting a small portion of the population.

It’s called the Open Act.

“Today, it takes 10 to 12 to even 15 years and upwards of $2 billion to move a drug or biological product from a good idea to an approved product,” Kay Holcombe, Senior Vice President, Science Policy, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said in a statement to the committee.

“During that lengthy period, unmet medical needs remain unmet and patients wait.”

And patients die.

Bilirakis asked, “There are about 500 approved rare disease drugs, but 7,000 rare diseases affecting some 30 million Americans.  They’re taking medication off-label, not knowing if their drugs are safe and effective for their conditions, or if it’s the proper dosage, and fighting with their insurance companies on coverage of their medications.

“Does it make sense to incentivize development for a targeted population when there are clearly defined needs?”

Holcombe answered simply: “Yes.”

Bilirakis has long argued that the lengthy development requirements hurt patient care and increase costs.

“This isn’t political at all,” Bilirakis told me during an interview about the 21st Century Cures initiative. “I want to take the politics out of it.”

Well, this is Washington, where politics is the milk on morning cereal. Diseases aren’t political, though, and there has to be a way to make it easier to develop these treatments and get them to market at prices people can afford. At least Bilirakis is trying.

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‘Safety valve’ wanted for mandatory-minimum drug law

In 2008, an Orange County, Florida, judge sentenced William Forrester to 15 years in prison for 15.6 grams of oxycodone, or about 30 pills.

Forrester was on disability insurance and had a lung surgically removed due to cancer not long before his arrest, according to court documents. But possession of the oxycodone, combined with a forged prescription to obtain it, turned him into a narcotics trafficker under Florida’s mandatory minimum drug law.

“If was an option, then certainly we would talk about it. But my hands are tied by the law, and I have to sentence you to 15 years, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Judge Mark Blechman.

Forrester will be 65 years old upon his scheduled release in 2021.

According to a new policy brief by the James Madison Institute, a conservative Tallahassee-based think tank, there are 2,310 inmates serving mandatory minimum prison terms in Florida for hydrocodone and oxycodone trafficking offenses.

Not all of them are in for selling pills.

The highly-addictive opioids are legal pain medications when prescribed by a doctor, and can leave some people hooked after their prescriptions expire.

Florida’s tough drug laws, passed in 1999, were meant to punish drug dealers. But mandatory sentencing for hydrocodone and oxycodone — ranging from three years to life in prison — can be triggered by as few as 27 hydrocodone pills, or 14 oxycodone pills.

Under the law, illegal possession of small amounts of the pills is considered drug trafficking.

Patients recovering from surgery often receive a one-time prescription of 30 to 60 hydrocodone or oxycodone pills, and in forms containing acetaminophen, or Tylenol, according to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a legislative research office.

An attempt to illegally obtain an equal amount qualifies for an automatic prison sentence.

Author Laura Krisai, a JMI adjunct scholar and director of criminal justice reform at the Reason Foundation, says it’s time for the Legislature to adopt a “safety valve.”

“Public safety is not enhanced when individuals are incarcerated for years longer than necessary,” Krisai says.

A safety valve provision would allow judges to exercise discretion when sentencing individuals in cases where Florida’s mandatory sentences don’t fit the crimes.

“Safety valve legislation neither eliminates the underlying mandatory minimum sentencing law, nor does it require judges to sentence offenders below the minimum term. It is a narrowly tailored exception for certain offenders and under certain circumstances,” the brief says.

An analysis of Florida Department of Corrections data shows that 83 percent of prisoners incarcerated for hydrocodone and oxycodone trafficking have never been to prison before, or had only previously served time for nonviolent offenses.

The Department also considers 435 of the trafficking offenders to be elderly, defined in the state prison system as over 50 years old.

A safety valve measure, the brief says, also would save millions of taxpayer dollars.

In fiscal year 2014-15, the DOC reported an average cost $53.49 per day to house an inmate in a state correctional facility. The 2,310 hydrocodone and oxycodone traffickers cost a combined $123,562 per day, or $45.1 million per year.

If the 83 percent of first-time and nonviolent traffickers had their mandatory prison terms reduced by one-year when they were sentenced, the state would save $33.3 million.

“There’s no evidence from Florida or elsewhere that shows when judges are allowed to determine sentences — or, to judge — public safety is threatened,” Krisai concluded.

___

William Patrick is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at wpatrick@watchdog.org and @WmPatFL.

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