U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel wanted to hear about the region’s opioid epidemic so she hosted a community forum in Delray Beach on Friday.
She got an earful of bad news.
“It’s overwhelming,” Frankel said, shaking her head. “I don’t think most people understand this.”
In Delray Beach, the heroin epidemic has gotten so bad that the chiefs of police and fire rescue have brought in mental health counselors to help first-responders deal with overdose deaths.
“The challenge is keeping the troops engaged enough to where they still want to make a difference,” said Fire Chief Neal De Jesus said at the roundtable.
De Jesus said young paramedics and firefighters he oversees “are seeing more death in two years than I’ve seen in 32 years.” Delray Beach Police Chief Jeff Goldman said he, too, has brought in mental health counselors to help his officers keep their “compassion and empathy.”
Overdose calls are putting such a strain on paramedics and firefighters that “we literally cannot keep up,” De Jesus said.
“It’s put a significant strain on our ability to provide day-to-day services to our residents,” De Jesus said.”Response times are increasing to an unacceptable level.”
The medical examiner is predicting 403 opioid overdose deaths this year — up from about 350 in 2015. The overdose deaths include prescription opioids, including oxycodone. Most worrisome is the sharp rise in deadly fentanyl detected in overdose victims, said Dr. Rita McDougall, Palm Beach County associate medical examiner.
In 2015, fentanyl, a pain medicine 50-100 times more powerful than morphine, was detected in 90 fatal overdoses. In the first nine months of 2016, fentanyl was detected in 220 cases.
McDougall said she works seven days a week but still can’t keep up: “It doesn’t feel like my passion anymore. It feels like my job.”
Frankel has taken the lead among Florida’s lawmakers in Washington on addiction-related issues. She persuaded federal housing officials to visit Palm Beach County for a tour of sober homes as part of her effort to get clarification on federal housing laws that protect people with disabilities, such as drug addicts.
Frankel sited The Palm Beach Post’s recent series on the opioid epidemic, Heroin: Killer of a generation, in her invitation to speakers at the event on Friday.
Around the room the bad news continued. Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson, who heads the Sober Home Task Force, explained a new scam: Marketers have figured out how to re-route to treatment centers in Florida the phone calls of addicts seeking help out of state.
The marketers then lure them to Florida with offers of free airfare, gym memberships, cigarettes and free rent. Besides insurance fraud and patient brokering, there are also cases of human trafficking and sex slaves, Johnson said.
One mother contacted the State Attorney’s Office after she received the bill for seven months of treatment for her son, who overdosed and died in July 2015. The total: $609,000, Johnson said.
When Frankel asked for ways to curb the epidemic, Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein suggested getting local overdose data to parents up North who are considering sending their child to Florida for treatment.
“They’re not going to get better here,” Glickstein said. “They’re going to get better at home where they aren’t surrounded by predatory practices.”