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Editorial: County plan for battling opioid crisis is a good start

When The Palm Beach Post published a comprehensive project on the opioid crisis in November called “Heroin: Killer of a Generation,” the newspaper showed the faces of the 216 people who had died in Palm Beach County in 2015 of a heroin, fentanyl or illicit morphine overdose. Those faces, hauntingly, took up an entire page.

If that project were to be done today, it would take three pages to display the faces of 592 people — the number whose deaths were caused by opioid overdoses here in 2016, according to Palm Beach County Medical Examiner data that includes prescription painkillers.

The disaster is growing that fast.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue alone answered more than 3,500 calls in response to overdoses last year. Besides the time and toll in manpower, the department spent $205,346 just on the emergency drug Narcan — a 1,041-percent increase over 2012.

To their great credit, Palm Beach County commissioners have recognized that the county is being ravaged by a growing epidemic. And that resources, brains and a community-wide collaborative attitude are needed to fight it.

With a unanimous vote, they approved an action plan on Tuesday that should give struggling cities, overwhelmed emergency workers, a strained court system, despairing parents and demon-possessed addicts a glimpse of something they haven’t had in a long time — the hope that this monster will be faced head-on.

The plan calls for the county government to hire three new staff members: a senior level opioid czar to coordinate a multi-pronged effort, and two positions in the Medical Examiner’s Office to catch up with the morgue’s grim backlog. To fund that and an array of treatment efforts, the commissioners committed to immediately dip into $1 million of county reserves and to budget another $2 million in the next fiscal year.

By their vote, the commission endorsed an array of recommendations laid out in a report they ordered in January, soon after the Post’s exposé. Pulling in threads from across the criminal-justice and drug-treatment worlds, the plan calls for promoting clean-needle exchanges; continuing the crackdown on unscrupulous sober homes; training first-responders, emergency room workers and pharmacists in substance abuse, mental illness and trauma; educating the public and, perhaps most important, providing more treatment beds.

Most striking is the commission’s recognition, based upon input from the Sheriff’s Office and court system as well as medical workers, that this problem will never be solved by simply making arrests and sending abusers to jail.

“It is in fact a health care crisis,” said County Mayor Pauline Burdick shortly before the 7-0 vote, “and all of us here know we have a moral responsibility … to fund it and work with all the agencies.”

Palm Beach County has now given itself the chance to be a leader in tackling a crisis that has swelled to national proportions. This is altogether fitting because our county has the unhappy distinction of having led the state in opioid deaths in 2015; Broward, Orange and Miami-Dade were significantly behind.

Let’s put that in closer perspective. In 2015, just one hospital — JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, west of Lake Worth — recorded as many overdoses as all of Miami-Dade County. In the fourth quarter of 2015, that single hospital handled 90 overdoses in 91 days.

There is, meanwhile, a severe shortage of treatment options for the poor. Of 206 substance abuse treatment providers in Palm Beach County, only 5 percent are publicly funded state-contracted providers, according to the county-commissioned report. Some 24,000 uninsured people could use “deep end” substance-abuse services, meaning detoxification and residential treatment, the report says; but only 7 percent have received any.

These are some of the problems that the county’s elected leaders have resolved to fix. It is time now for Gov. Rick Scott to act as well — to summon the powers of his office with the same urgency he showed last year against the threat of the Zika virus.

The scourge of heroin-related addictions, overdoses and deaths is still rising. It will not end soon. But county leaders are now committed to fighting back. It’s a start.

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