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Despite losing grant, health district will help addicts with treatment

A month after learning it would not receive an $8.2 million grant to provide drug treatment to wean addicts off heroin, the Palm Beach County Health Care District is quickly moving forward with a scaled down version of its original plan.

The taxpayer-financed district, which provides health care to the poor and uninsured, hopes to have the pilot project in place by the end of February. Efforts have been stymied by the lack of doctors licensed to prescribe buprenorphine, sold as Suboxone and Subutex, a drug that weans addicts off drugs.

>>Read Post’s full coverage of heroin addiction

The pilot project will offer out-patient detox treatment at one of its clinics. Addicts in the program must prove they are also participating in therapy, counseling, 12-step programs or other treatment in order to stay in the program. Because the district has partnerships with other community health and social service programs, addicts will also receive mental health and primary care services.

Asked why the district has not responded sooner to the opioid epidemic —now the No. 1 killer of young adults — District CEO Darcy Davis held a hand to her throat and said that historically the agency’s “core competency” has been in treating physical conditions from the neck down.

Addiction medicine is a specialty that requires specially trained physicians and staff. The district’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Belma Andric, said the district is hiring a psychiatrist in February who is qualified to prescribe buprenorphine and treat addicts.

Unlike the program proposed in the grant, which would have created a centralized facility to provide services to uninsured addicts, the scaled-down pilot project will provide medical services at one of its clinics.

Because the pilot program will use an existing clinic and staff, the cost is much less and should be available soon, Davis said. The bulk of the cost will be for the medication, which costs less than $2 a dose, Davis added.

If the program is successful, the district hopes to expand it to other clinics. The clinic that will be the first to offer the program was not identified.

“We have been looking for our fit in this, recognizing that we are not the leaders in this — we are the safety net and we are not experts,” Davis said. “We have come up with an understanding, an appropriate response and approach to how we might make an impact in the community.”

The district had hoped to receive $8.2 million from a grant sought by the Southeast Behavioral Health Network, the group tasked by the Department of Children and Families to oversee mental health programs in part of South Florida. There were 12 applicants for the grant money. The Network’s application ranked 10th.

The number of uninsured addicts is not known. However, young addicts can be covered on their parents’ insurance policies only until they are 26 years old. Because of widespread insurance fraud in the industry, insurance giant Cigna pulled out of Florida’s insurance marketplace and other companies are scrutinizing applications more closely for false information. Some companies require applicants to provide proof of Florida residency, such as utility bills.

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