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Palm Beach County considers czar, spending $1 million in opioid fight

Palm Beach County commissioners will consider a variety of options next Tuesday to combat the rampaging opioid epidemic, including the hiring of a senior-level administrative staffer, creating two new positions with the Medical Examiner’s Office and pouring $1 million into a range of treatment programs.

Those options are among the recommendations of a 72-page report outlining the scope of the problem and making suggestions on ways it should be addressed.

READ: Palm Beach County’s “Opioid Crisis” response report

The report was commissioned by the county for $28,000 in January — less than two months after The Palm Beach Post published an extensive project telling the stories of the 215 people who died in the county of an opioid overdose in 2015.

The epidemic became especially poignant for county officials after it claimed the life of the daughter of long-time staffer Johnnie Easton, who worked as an aide to Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.

RELATED: The Post’s Generation Heroin series

McKinlay has pushed state lawmakers for action on the issue and called on the governor for a public health emergency declaration, which would give him broader authority and more resources to combat the problem.

Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath has joined in that call, writing to the governor “with deep and growing concern over the deadly impact the opioid epidemic is having on our state” and urging him to declare a public health emergency “to marshal resources, implement new strategies and raise awareness so we can all more effectively combat this epidemic.”

Commissioners are expected to review the report when they meet on Tuesday. It was emailed to them on Tuesday as part of their meeting prep materials.

The report was compiled by the Fort Lauderdale-based Ronik-Radlauer Group, which interviewed a range of officials, including those with the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office, Fire Rescue, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, treatment and mental health professionals.

Ronik-Radlauer found the scope of the problem to be stunningly vast:

  • Medical Examiner’s Office figures from 2012 to 2016 show the number of fatal overdoses were opioids were present went from 153 to 932, a 509 percent increase.
  • Fatal overdoses from 2012 to 2016 where opioids were the cause of death went from 143 to 569, an increase of 298 percent.
  • The Florida Medical Examiner’s Annual Report in 2015 found that Palm Beach County led the state in heroin deaths with 158, which was 21 percent of the state’s total heroin deaths that year.

“The opioid epidemic is complex requiring a coordinated community response,” the report states.

But like The Post, Ronik-Radlauer found that the current response is uncoordinated, underfunded and under-staffed.

Ronik-Radlauer’s report found 24 “challenges” to the current system of response, including:

  • Need for more treatment beds for insured and uninsured patients.
  • Florida-based insurance pays less for in-state treatment so facilities prefer to fill beds with out-of-state patients.
  • Residential treatment facilities don’t allow long enough stays.
  • Families don’t know where to turn to for help.
  • Limited services in Belle Glade.
  • Lack of safe, stable, affordable housing for those who lose housing in part because of their addiction.
  • Lack of local support for clean needle exchange programs.
  • Medical Examiner’s Office lacks capacity to handle the increase in overdose deaths.
  • Out-of-state residents use treatment facilities in the county, but, if they are not successful, they don’t always return to their home states.
  • Need for more training for emergency room doctors, nurses and technicians who treat patients abusing opioids.
  • Need for non-profits to get more resources so they can help people get access to treatment.

The $1 million that the county directs to program costs would come from the county’s reserves. That idea is sure to spark some discussion among commissioners and staff, who have pushed in recent years to add to the county’s reserves, which are closely monitored by agencies that rate the county’s financial health.

“We are not anxious to tap into reserves for this or for any other purpose,” Deputy County Administrator Jon Van Arnam said. “But in this instance, the need is so great that, from a staff perspective, we feel this is justified.”

Details are still being worked out, but Van Arnam said the senior-level staffer overseeing the county’s opioid response would report to him or to County Administrator Verdenia Baker.

While the response plan as a whole will be debated on Tuesday, Ronik-Radlauer’s report makes clear the problem of opioid abuse is broad and urgent.

“The community needs to be aware of the size and scope of the opioid epidemic,” the report states. “The challenge is ever-changing so staying abreast of current trends is necessary. Any successful intervention needs to address the cultural needs of the community in which it serves. There needs to be coordinated access to treatment so that consumers and family members know where to go to get the help that they need.”

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