In 2016, officials took the first steps to clean up the fraud-ridden addiction treatment industry and curb the alarming rise of lives cut short by heroin-related overdoses.
Every level of government — local, state and federal — acted after The Palm Beach Post’s 18 months of exclusive reporting on the addiction treatment industry and its special report Nov. 20 report, Heroin: Killer of a Generation.
The Post devoted its front page to the faces of 216 people who died in Palm Beach County of heroin-related overdoses in 2015. Online, short stories of each person accompanied their photos. Since then, The Post has detailed the daily costs of treating overdoses in hospitals — more than $4 million a day across the state and rising.
Both provided insight key to addressing the epidemic: who was dying, and the bottom-line costs of ignoring heroin’s statewide impact. The stories followed months of The Post’s reporting on fraudulent drug tests, unscrupulous sober home owners, abuse of those seeking help for addiction and the lack of regulation making it possible.
Now officials are using the information.
Citing the heroin report, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, announced in December that he has asked the U.S. comptroller general to review a Palm Beach County grand jury report to glean ideas for state and federal oversight of addiction treatment.
That grand jury, initiated by State Attorney Dave Aronberg and believed to be the first of its kind in the country, found human trafficking, sex abuse, forced labor and insurance fraud in the sober industry, all initially reported by The Post. The grand jury made key recommendations to lawmakers. Among them: Make deceptive marketing a crime, establish oversight of sober homes and strengthen patient brokering penalties.
Another local sober home task force overseen by Aronberg — this one comprised of law enforcement agencies — has made nine arrests of treatment center owners and operators on patient brokering charges since its inception in July.
In October, Whole Recovery treatment center’s chief executive and its operator were arrested and charged with paying kickbacks to sober homes willing to send their residents for treatment there; seven sober home owners or managers also faced charges of patient brokering. James Kigar, the chief executive, was initially facing a handful of the brokering charges; that was recently upped by prosecutors to 95 counts.
On Dec. 21, members of the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force literally cheered on news that notorious treatment center and sober home operator Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman had been arrested on insurance fraud charges. Five others, including two doctors and Chatman’s wife, were also charged in connection with the fraud.
A year earlier, The Post detailed many of the allegations contained in the federal complaint: Drugs provided to sober home residents, bribes paid to the homes get a steady stream of well-insured patients to gin up drug test billings and belongings such as phones and car keys taken from sober home residents, making it impossible for them to leave. At one of Chatman’s sober homes in October, The Post wrote, two women overdosed — one died — within hours of one another.
Prosecutors expect to convene a grand jury in January to seek an indictment against Chatman in overdose deaths at his facilities — in addition to charges of human trafficking, forced prostitution, operating a house for illicit drug use and illegal weapon possession.
More arrests of industry players are expected.
Calling the Chatman charges “shameful and sickening,” Florida’s Department of Children and Families, the state agency that regulates treatment centers, said it will tighten licensing regulations and seek authority to regulate sober homes, which operate now almost entirely unregulated.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, one of the first among Florida’s lawmakers in Washington to act on addiction-related issues, persuaded federal housing officials to visit Palm Beach County for a tour of sober homes, subject of a series of articles about how neighborhoods felt under siege.
The effort to get clarity on how problems with the group residences could be addressed paid off. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development later gave cities room to regulate group homes as long as they don’t use zoning and code enforcement to specifically target sober homes.
Shortly after The Post’s stories on those who died in 2015, Frankel led a round table discussion on access to treatment. And she had talked with first responders to learn how they’re coping with daily calls for overdoses.
Delray Beach police, for example, are bringing in mental health counselors to help officers cope with the near-daily death toll.
“It’s overwhelming,” Frankel said. “I don’t think most people understand this.”
Meanwhile, two Florida legislators initiated bills responding to the opioid epidemic by increasing sentences for the highly lethal painkiller fentanyl, often mixed with heroin, and requiring hospitals to expand overdose treatment.
One bill makes selling, buying or manufacturing at least 4 grams of fentanyl a first-degree felony. Fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid painkiller when used illicitly, is believed to be part of the reason that overdose deaths are skyrocketing. Fifty times more powerful than heroin, in a medical setting, it is used to sedate surgical patients and relieve chronic pain. But in recent years it has been mixed with heroin, unbeknownst to users, or sold as heroin. The bill, SB 150, was introduced by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota.
More proposed legislation, HB 61, filed by Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, requires hospitals to screen overdose patients to determine the need for additional services and prohibits them from discharging overdose patients to a detox or drug treatment center until the patient is stable.
Locally, anything other than private addiction treatment remains scarce. The heroin task force organized by Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Capt. Houston Park early last year said it expects to launch a pilot study this month that will provide detox services, medications and guidance by a nurse or counselor for a month for addicts who were treated in an emergency rooms for an overdose.
Other possibilities for aid may be forthcoming. Within hours of the publication of The Post’s heroin report, several county commissioners vowed to take steps to address the local epidemic.
The first to step forward was County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay. In Orlando attending a Florida Association of Counties conference at the time, McKinlay said county officials from all over the state were talking about the report.
“You really hit the nail on the head,’’ she said.
But the most significant reaction to Post stories about those who died may be the hundreds of readers who said they were moved by the deaths of teenagers, men and women who had been part of the community.
Jennifer Brown, who participates in an online support group for mothers of addicted children, saw the package online:
“There is so much stigma and bad press about how horrible addicts are and what crappy parents they must have — your story and photos are the kindest thing I have seen come out of a journalist in…forever it seems.
“So, from a warrior mom of a recovering addict. … I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for fighting the fight along with us and being so respectful of our plight to save our kids.