Members of the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force were incredulous last week that the county lost out on millions of dollars of state money to fight the heroin epidemic.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson said “coffee came up my nose” when he read the news in The Palm Beach Post. Other members shook their heads or took aim at the Health Care District, the agency that asked for the money.
The task force members are on the front lines of the heroin epidemic, which has hit Palm Beach County as hard — or harder — than anywhere in the state. The Health Care District’s request for $10 million to battle the epidemic, they believed, would have gone a long way.
News that they received nothing didn’t sit well with some officials, who said DCF wasn’t “aware” of how critical the problem is here.
But John Bryant, assistant secretary for substance abuse and mental health for DCF, said the grants were not based solely on need, but by the responses in the grant application.
“If this were needs-based, we wouldn’t have this discussion,” he told the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force on Monday.
She told task force members that the health district spent only a month working on the application. Broward, which won one of the three grants, worked on the application for a year, she said.
“We need to do our homework and submit this on time, with grant writers who are prepared,” she said. “We need to do our homework. They did not.”
Broward’s Henderson Behavioral Health, which received $21.9 million, did not spend a year working on the application — the RFP was only announced in July. But the team worked “very hard” on it, CEO Dr. Steve Ronik said.
DCF’s Bryant said a team evaluated the bids and ranked them on a scoring system. The Health Care District’s proposal wasn’t close to winning, placing 10th of 12. There was only enough money for the top three proposals.
He said that he read only the winning applicants, and didn’t know the quality of the health district’s proposal.
The health district’s 106-page proposal is replete with technical and historical fact, but doesn’t ever lay out the scope of the heroin epidemic in Palm Beach County, a treatment destination for recovering addicts from around the country.
A grand jury report released Dec. 12 said 406 people have died from opioid-related overdoses in Palm Beach County through October as heroin, often mixed with deadly fentanyl, takes it toll.
The Palm Beach Post documented 216 heroin-related deaths in 2015 in Palm Beach County in a special section, Heroin: Killer of a Generation. The Nov. 20 investigation showed how some local and state officials remain tone deaf to the problem.
The Health Care District — the taxpayer-supported safety net for medical services — planned to use the $10 million to launch a new program to aid drug addicts who overdose and land in hospital emergency rooms, helping them detox and finding treatment. It also planned to establish a central facility to provide services to uninsured drug abusers.
DCF awarded $40 million of “centralized receiving systems” grant money to Broward, Leon and Volusia counties. The bulk of it went to Henderson.
On Monday, Health Care District CEO Darcy Davis did not address the criticism, saying the focus needs to be on the heroin crisis.
“We remain hopeful that there may be future opportunities that are more suited to the Health Care District’s current programs and services within the county,” she said.
She reiterated that the district plans to find ways to partner with other agencies, such as the Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network and first responders.
Becky Walker, director of network management for the behavioral health network, said a back-and-forth with DCF over the failed bid is counter-productive.
“We just want to try to work with our partners and do what is best for our people in Palm Beach County,” Walker said. “Let’s move forward.”
Henderson behavioral health’s pitch was for police to take people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse to facilities around the county, including Henderson, instead of jail. At the facility, the patient would receive treatment, case management, sustained outpatient service — even transportation for treatment afterward.
Ronik said he didn’t know how his proposal compared to Palm Beach County’s.
“We scored No. 1, so the reviewers liked our application very much,” he said.