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Heroin task force launches 2 initiatives, contemplates needle exchange

After a seemingly late and slow start over the summer, efforts of the Palm Beach County Heroin Task Force are gaining traction and support — with two major initiatives poised to launch this month.

At a task force meeting on Thursday, task force leaders said a pilot program aimed at providing immediate detox and treatment for addicts who have overdosed and are taken to a hospital emergency room begins on Monday. The program can enroll up to 30 addicts who have been revived after an overdose and taken to JFK Medical Center.

Participating addicts will be given two doses of buprenorphine, a drug that prevents and eases withdrawal symptoms, while in the emergency room. During the following week, first-responders will continue to administer the drug at the addict’s home or other designated location. Addicts also will be required to attend 12-step meetings or other therapy daily.

Also Monday, the Southeast Behavioral Health Network will complete its application for part of a $27 million federal grant that will provide detox and treatment for opioid addicts.

The application will cite a Palm Beach Post analysis that found hospital charges from treating addicts topped $1.1 billion in 2015. The Post analysis of billings from 302 Florida hospitals appears to be the only publicly available statewide cost calculation to date.

Palm Beach County is one of five Florida counties approved to receive the grant money. The money can be spent only to treat uninsured addicts and target specific populations, including pregnant addicts and parents whose children are under state care.

Treatment centers and sober homes that do not allow patients and residents to use drugs such as buprenorphine and methadone to wean themselves off opioids are not eligible. The grant money will become available in October.

Topics that were once taboo at Heroin Task Force meetings — such as needle exchanges — are now under consideration.

Justin Kunzelman, founder of Rebel Recovery, urged county and city officials to consider passing ordinances to allow needle exchange programs, not only to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis but to show addicts that the community cares about them.

“They need to feel they can trust somebody in county or city government,” Kunzelman said. “It gets them engaged in the system and introduces them to everybody else’s resources.”

Task force members said they would consider the option.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Captain Houston Park, a co-founder of the task force, said Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach is now giving addicts who overdose a prescription for the overdose-antidote Narcan before they are discharged from the emergency department. Other hospitals are considering doing the same, Park said.

The Heroin Task Force’s actions are part of growing momentum to halt the opioid epidemic and crack down on corruption in the drug treatment industry. The Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force, also created in summer 2015, has made 11 arrests for patient brokering since October.

Public support and participation in the Sober Home Task Force’s efforts are so strong that a tip hotline set up by the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office is often full, said Assistant State Attorney Justin Chapman.

“We’re just getting a lot of tips lately,” Chapman said. “It’s really overwhelming.”

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