As heroin’s deadly grip tightens on Palm Beach County, the Health Care District reached out its hand to the state to assist in the growing crisis.
It came back empty.
The Department of Children and Families denied the Health Care District of Palm Beach County’s request for a $10 million grant to launch a new program to herd addicts into treatment when they land in hospital emergency rooms after overdosing.
The district also planned to use the money to create a central facility to provide services to uninsured drug abusers who have run out of options.
Becky Walker, director of network management for the Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network, said she reached out to DCF officials when she heard the agency funneled $40 million in grant money to Broward, Leon and Volusia counties.
“I would say they (DCF officials) weren’t completely aware of how serious the situation is. Since then, we’ve spoken to officials with DCF’s substance abuse and mental health program but it is too late (for the grant).”
Henderson Behavioral Health in Broward received $21.9 million of the grant money. Walker said DCF could have spread it out a little more. “We are just so disappointed, particularly considering the opioid crisis,” she said.
DCF spokesman David Frady said there were 12 applicants for the grant money. The Health Care District scored 10th.
“Each facility was evaluated independently by eight DCF staff members following strict evaluation procedures in the attached manuals to ensure a fair process,” he said.
There have been 406 opioid-related overdose deaths in Palm Beach County through October as heroin, often mixed with deadly fentanyl, takes it toll, according to a grand jury report released Dec. 12.
The Palm Beach Post last month outlined the scope of the problem in its investigation, Heroin: Killer of a generation, including the lack of response by government to the crisis on both the local and state level.
The crisis is taking a significant toll on first responders. U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, said this year alone there have been more than 4,000 emergency calls for drug overdoses. “That is mind-boggling,” she said. “People who are addicted to drugs, opiates, they need to be helped in recovery.”
The Health Care District’s 106-page proposal to DCF stated that 3,700 people in need of mental health or addiction services would have been served through the $10 million grant.
The district — the county’s medical provider of last resort — planned to use the money initially to get to addicts in the emergency room, finding them an open bed at a local detox or drug recovery center. A “centralized receiving facility” would provide not only treatment for addicts but also mental health services, catching the overflow from the ERs and treatment centers.
“It is disappointing they didn’t look at the county with one of the more significant problems,” said Darcy Davis, chief executive of the Health Care District.
Where’s the money?
Earlier this week, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg released a grand jury report with recommendations to combat the opioid crisis — a report he hoped would get the attention of lawmakers and bureaucrats.
Previously, the Legislature has done little, passing a bill calling for voluntary sober home certification and a pilot needle-exchange measure in Miami-Dade County — but nothing that requires any real financial resources.
In the absence of regulatory action, fraud blossomed as unscrupulous sober homes took advantage of addicts, cashing in on drug-testing urinalysis, patient-brokering or even human trafficking.
Prosecutor Al Johnson, who leads the Sober Home Task Force for the State Attorney’s Office, said DCF remains woefully underfunded.
“One of the most important changes that the Florida Legislature can tackle is oversight,” he said at a Dec. 12 news conference. “You have a sober home industry that literally has no oversight at all, no licensing is required.”
Aronberg repeatedly said he hoped the new grand jury report would make lawmakers realize that the heroin epidemic is a statewide problem.
“The findings here show this is the No. 1 health crisis in Florida, not just Palm Beach County,” he said.
That Aronberg, a former state senator, has to make a case to Tallahassee that Palm Beach County is part of the state is endemic of the problem, said Mark Pafford, the former state House Democratic leader. Florida is reflective of the nation where political power from rural, small counties hold hostage the large population centers on the coasts, he said.
“What we are seeing is just the latest moment, another point in time, of the Legislature’s inability to understand how they can contribute on a budgetary level,” Pafford said.
‘People are Dying’
He called Tallahassee tone deaf to the real concerns of citizens as lawmakers appear more interested in funneling public money into sports stadiums and corporate interests.
“People are dying because of Tallahassee’s inability to respond, yet the corporations and the most wealthy in the state seem to get what they want year after year,” Pafford said.
As insurance companies start denying coverage because of corruption, those on the front lines expect more addicts to end up looking for a publicly financed bed. Palm Beach County has about 25 such beds, mostly at the Drug Abuse Foundation in Delray Beach.
Davis knows the heroin crisis will find the Health Care District one way or another. She plans for the district to partner up with first responders in a pilot program starting in January that targets addicts who end up in ERs from overdoses. A select few will get medication for withdrawal from opiates, as well as counseling for a month.
Davis said the district should be able to help distribute the medication, Suboxone, to addicts detoxing at home.
While losing out on the grant was a “setback,” Davis said, “We are still moving forward. We can have a positive impact in some more immediate ways to respond to the crisis.”
What The Post reported
The Palm Beach Post’s investigative team exposed widespread corruption in the county’s billion-dollar addiction treatment industry. To read our investigation and continuing coverage, go to MyPalmBeachPost.com/soberhomes.