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Governor’s opioid listening tour generates skepticism, concerns

State officials dispatched by Gov. Rick Scott on a statewide listening tour to seek solutions to the opioid epidemic will devote just six hours in four stops to an issue causing thousands of deaths in Florida and nationwide.

As other governors declare a state of emergency and increase spending on treatment, Scott has called for four 90-minute sessions, including one on May 1 in West Palm Beach.

The timing is an issue as well. The workshops in the first week of May take place at the same time as the final week of the annual legislative session, casting doubt on whether some key officials will attend.

One key official who is planning to attend is Dr. Celeste Philip, Florida’s surgeon general, said Tim O’Connor, spokesman for the Palm Beach County Health Department.

Still, Scott’s approach left some recovery advocates and family members wondering if it’s even worth attending.

Some say they’re skeptical that 90 minutes is enough time to hear their concerns, much less allow state officials to provide them with information and spell out best practices, as a state news release suggests.

“Is (Scott) in an alternative world to think that he can only spare 90 minutes on this big of a problem that has taken so many lives? That’s a shame,” said Maureen Sperling of Delray Beach, whose son died of an overdose in 2012.

“This sounds horrible but (a workshop) seems pointless,” said Dana Finegan, whose son died in a Delray Beach apartment in October after overdosing on heroin laced with carfentanil. Her son, Anthony Russo, was among nearly 600 people who died in Palm Beach County in 2016 from an opioid overdose, twice the number from 2015.

“At this point I just don’t know if I will go because I’m just so frustrated,” she said. “You can only talk until you are blue in the face unless you take action.”

Finegan and other families say a more effective solution for Scott would be to declare a public health emergency, a move that would direct immediate spending to the problem.

Virginia in 2016 and Massachusetts in 2014 declared public health emergencies after heroin deaths rose sharply in those states. On March 1, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also declared a public health emergency.

Town halls, workshops and heroin task force meetings have been held locally nearly every month over the past year, generating recommendations that already have been sent to the governor’s office, said Gaynelle Gosselin of Southeast Florida Recovery Advocates.

She also pointed out the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office convened a grand jury that wrote a 37-page report with recommendations.

“I am deeply disappointed by your continued failure to recognize the opioid crisis for what it is, a public health emergency,” she wrote in a letter to Scott.

“As we experience mass casualties, you and Attorney General (Pam) Bondi suggest ‘opioid workshops.’ That is not an acceptable response given the magnitude of the problem. You have the power to declare this an emergency. Why do you choose not to use it? The workshops have been held already.”

Palm Beach County will be the site of the first workshop hosted by the departments of Health, Children and Families, and Law Enforcement.

State officials, as directed last week by Scott and Bondi, will hold 90-minute workshops May 2 in Manatee and Orange counties and on May 3 in Duval County.

“Community workshops will provide important opportunities for DCF, DOH and FDLE to directly hear the specific needs of affected communities as well as provide information on existing resources, best practices and grant opportunities,” DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in an email to local officials.

In announcing his strategy Tuesday at a news conference in Tallahassee, Scott said the workshops are a start.

“We’re going to have these workshops and we’re going to see if there’s ideas that we can put forth that might have an impact,” he said. “We’re going to see what we can learn, but all of us have to understand that we all have to be involved with this.”

Many families and advocates, however, say they’ve been involved with the epidemic since they first started trying to get help for their addicted loved ones.

“We have the statistics. We need detox beds. How much louder do we have to scream?” said Katrin O’Leary, an addiction treatment advocate. She pointed out that she believes JFK Medical Center in Atlantis treated at least 20 overdose patients on Tuesday, the day of Scott’s news conference.

“What does it take for them to look out the door and see what we have going on here right now?”

Hours after Scott’s news conference, Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay tweeted with a photo of a Boeing 747: “Enough people died of opioid/heroin overdoses in Palm Beach County to fill up two of these. #itsacrisis”

While McKinlay is disappointed with Scott’s response, she also hopes families will consider it the start of a dialogue that could lead to better solutions.

“The bottom line is that the governor stood up and publicly acknowledged this as a national epidemic for the first time. We laid it out there. He heard us and he responded,” she said.

“If we are going to take a positive out of this, it’s that he is listening to us now.”

Other families say it’s still important to attend the workshop because it’s a chance to speak directly to Scott’s representatives.

“I have to go,” said Frank Oddo of Delray Beach, who lost a son to an overdose last October. “I clearly understand why people are frustrated but I think we need for our voices to be heard.”

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