Task force urges action to stem heroin epidemic, save lives


After more than seven months of work, the Palm Beach County Heroin Task Force is planning to unveil in January a multi-pronged “action plan” aimed at curbing the opioid epidemic.

And task force members hope a recent Palm Beach Post expose about the epidemic’s toll in Palm Beach County will help prompt county and state lawmakers to provide money for many of the plan’s programs and initiatives.

“There have been a lot of articles in the newspaper bringing the heroin epidemic to light. With the energy that we have and the opportunity we have, this a time for us to push our plan forward and get it in front of people that can help make it become a reality,’’ Becky Walker, director of network management for the Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network, said at Friday’s task force meeting.

At the 90-minute session, the task force added three more initiatives to its extensive proposal: a focus on babies born with heroin addiction, a program to deal with an expected rise in homelessness as rogue sober homes are shut down, and a series of community forums for families and relatives who’ve lost loved ones to accidental overdoses.

In all, the action plan has more than 25 recommendations, including increasing access to the heroin overdose antidote naloxone, adding beds at treatments centers and harm-reduction plans such as education on safe needle usage and promotion of syringe exchange programs.

It also calls for a pilot study to begin in January that will provide detox services, medications and guidance by a nurse or counselor for a month after an addict overdoses and is taken to an emergency room.

Another strategy is to add indigent beds through “addiction receiving facilities” in the county.

“It’s kind of ironic that Palm Beach County is … the ‘recovery capital,’ ” because of its influx of private treatment centers and sober homes, “yet we have a shortage of publicly funded beds,’’ said Linda Kane, a manager with the Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network, who helped chair Friday’s meeting. The network is a nonprofit that disburses money from the state for behavioral health services.

Other than a few mentions of applying for grants, there was no specific discussion Friday on how to pay for many of the programs.

The next step will come in January when the task force will finalize the action plan and present it, in separate meetings, to the Palm Beach County Commission and the county’s legislative delegation.

The task force doesn’t want to unveil the plan any later than January because the state legislative session starts in March. “If we wait until after the session, it’s too late,” said Rosalind Murray, program development coordinator with the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission.

The heroin task force, which first met in May, is made up of first responders, advocacy groups, treatment providers, government staffers and addicts. A second task force, organized by Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, is examining laws affecting the sober home industry and bringing police together to crack down on illegal sober home practices.

The Post series, Heroin: Killer of a generation, detailed failures by local and state leaders to stem the epidemic. Many people at Friday’s meeting remarked about the individual profiles of 216 people who died of accidental opioid-related overdoses in 2015.

“While the (articles) don’t shed a pretty picture on it, I think it is helping to drive the theme home that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with. It is a health crisis,’’ said Kane.

At the start of the meeting, organizers said the Medical Examiner’s office has reported 416 overdose deaths from January to October 2016, which equates to about 12 people dying a week in Palm Beach County.

“If you have 12 people a week dying I think numerous families want to act and they don’t know what to do as a community,’’ said Quinn Paton of Palm Springs, who said she attended the meeting as a concerned citizen.

Paton was among several speakers who called for regular community awareness meetings made up of families who have lost loved ones to addiction.

“We do have a community that is hurting,’’ said Paton, who said she was shocked to see that she had attended high school in Boca Raton with at least three of the people who had died in 2015.

“If we can allow them a way to act, I think we could have an even bigger voice.’’


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