Lawmakers get ‘stunning’ primer on Palm Beach County’s opioid crisis

Florida Senate Appropriations Chairman and potential governor candidate Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, visited hard-hit Palm Beach County on Tuesday to learn about the state’s opioid crisis and said what he heard was “stunning.”

At the invitation of County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay and state Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, Latvala came to the Lake Worth campus of Palm Beach State College for a fact-finding meeting that drew about 200 people and lasted more than three hours. Local elected officials, first responders, medical and treatment professionals and grieving parents cited dire statistics and chilling anecdotes as Latvala, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and lawmakers from as far away as Miami and St. Petersburg listened.

» RELATED: Award-winning Palm Beach Post coverage of the opioid crisis

Two people die of opioid overdoses on a typical day in Palm Beach County, Deputy County Administrator Jon Van Arnam told Latvala and others.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, which serves unincorporated areas, is averaging 5 1/2 calls a day for overdoses this year, Chief Jeff Collins said. The county spent $205,000 this past year on Narcan, the overdose antidote also known as naloxone, compared to $55,000 in 2015.

On Monday, Collins said, Fire Rescue responded to an overdose in Wellington and treated the patient with Narcan, only to see the same patient overdose again three hours later. At least one patient has overdosed four times in a single day, said Fire Rescue Capt. Houston Park.

State Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, who is also a Fire Rescue captain, recalled responding to an overdose victim who was only 11 months old.

“Everybody says, ‘How does an 11-month-old do heroin?’…They put things in their mouth. The heroin was in the home. That 11-month-old didn’t have an opportunity to know right from wrong or whether they wanted to take it or not,” Willhite said.

St. Mary’s Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit treats five to seven addicted newborns on a typical day, CEO Gabrielle Finley-Hazle said. That doesn’t include infants who leave the hospital, experience addiction symptoms, and return for treatment in the pediatric ICU, Finey-Hazle said.

A mother complained that hospitals are too quick to discharge people who are treated for overdoses. There was some discussion of the Marchman Act, which allows families to petition for involuntary treatment of a loved one and could presumably reduce instances of people overdosing multiple times in the same day.

But Alton Taylor, executive director of the nonprofit Drug Abuse Foundation, said the county already has too few beds to treat substance abuse.

“When you talk about the Marchman Act, please understand, right now, you don’t need to force people into treatment. They’re sleeping in my parking lot. They’re all over the place. You don’t have to force them. You just have to make services available,” Taylor said.

Taylor said the number of publicly financed beds for detoxification and drug treatment in Palm Beach County has shrunk from 574 a decade ago to 200 now. A detox bed costs $227 a day for immediate medical stabilization, he said, while a treatment bed costs $110 a day.

“We need state and federal support beyond what we have now. This problem is too big for and too expensive for any entity, any single entity, to handle,” Van Arnam said.

“This is the No. 1 public health crisis facing our community and the country. This is the No. 1 criminal justice issue facing our community and the country,” said Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a former state senator who once served as Attorney General Pam Bondi’s czar for cracking down on illegal pill mills.

Aronberg said unscrupulous operators of sober homes are “on the run” in Palm Beach County — but he warned that could lead to a spike in homelessness and might merely push “rogue operators” to nearby jurisdictions.

Latvala, who is expected to launch a campaign for governor next week, said before the meeting he wanted to get a greater understanding of the opioid crisis before the Legislature begins shaping the next state budget in January.

“It’s a learning experience for me. I have never been involved in any great depth in the social service area of health care,” Latvala said before Tuesday’s meeting.

Afterward, Latvala said he was impressed by “the sheer number of people that came to talk about this issue for a guy from Pinellas County, where this is really not that big of an issue. It was stunning to me that there were that many people – the magnitude of the calls to the fire department, the involvement of the sheriff’s department, just the whole community seems to be zeroing in on trying to solve this problem, so I think the state should do our part to try to solve it with the community.”

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