‘Enough is enough:’ County official pledges action on heroin epidemic

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, stunned by the recent death of her chief aide’s daughter, pledged Monday to call on local and state government leaders for reforms to help curb the opioid epidemic.

Click to read the special report

“Enough is enough,” McKinlay said Monday, a day after The Palm Beach Post exposed how little is being done by government to address a problem that killed 216 people in Palm Beach County in 2015 and is on pace to kill more than 300 in 2016.

“It’s killing our young people. It’s leaving behind a whole group of friends and family and spouses that are left for a lifetime of picking up the pieces from these deaths,” she said.

>>Heroin epidemic, hidden in shame, draws little action to stop the dying

One of the epidemic’s latest victims was Tasha McCraw, the daughter of Johnnie Easton, a longtime aide in McKinlay’s District 6 office. Easton said her 33-year-old daughter died Friday in New York of a suspected drug overdose after a long battle with addiction.

At Tuesday’s meeting, McKinlay said she will ask staff for an overview of “what we are doing locally from a county government perspective to address the opioid and heroin crisis we have.’’

The county has focused few resources on the opioid epidemic and The Post revealed that addicts in Palm Beach County and throughout Florida have few options for care, beyond a core of dedicated treatment providers and volunteers.

>>Interactive Calendar: All the lives lost

McKinlay said she hopes to open a dialogue that will lead to larger discussions with other government agencies on ways to help addicts get proper treatment and to curb the epidemic.

4 more commissioners ready for action

At least four other commissioners, including the county’s two newest, said they are eager to have that discussion after reading The Post’s special section and web presentation, which featured individual photos and stories of everyone who died from a heroin-related overdose in 2015 in the county.

>>Full Coverage: Generation Heroin

“It is a public health crisis that we must deal with right away,’’ said Mack Bernard, who takes over Tuesday in the District 7 office after defeating incumbent Priscilla Taylor in the Aug. 30 Democratic primary.

“I hope we can take a different approach, as a new commission, to address this.”

Incoming Commissioner David Kerner, a former police officer and state representative, said he plans to make the heroin epidemic a priority.

“It’s an absolute public health issue, whether the typical victim is somebody that society looks at as a typical drug user or a (former) assistant state attorney,’’ said Kerner, referring to the story of Jessica Rose, who once worked as a prosecutor.

>>Former assistant state attorney, a potential star, is lost to epidemic

“It’s absolutely time to do something at a countywide level and it’s something I’m prepared to get to work on the moment I’m sworn in,” said Kerner, who will take over as District 3 commissioner, replacing the term-limited Shelley Vana.

Kerner said he wants the commission to collaborate with county officials – including Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and State Attorney Dave Aronberg — about strategies and views the Criminal Justice Commission as a good starting point.

Although Kerner said he would need to study specific solutions, he did say he would be open to increasing the budget for the county’s Medical Examiner’s Office. He also said local and state leaders should focus on ways to help addicts before they die.

>>What is addiction? Why some can’t give it up, others can walk away

“By the time the Medical Examiner’s Office gets involved, it’s too late for a particular person,’’ said Kerner, whose wife, an Atlantis police officer, has witnessed the epidemic during calls to JFK Medical Center.

“I would love to have more of a comprehensive countywide plan. What we see now in the county is a patchwork response to an issue that is affecting this entire county and other counties.”

Broken system, limited options

If addicts don’t have insurance, options for seeking help are limited.

“If you can pay 55 grand a month, there are plenty of beds,” Easton said in an interview. “But the people who are dying day in and day out don’t have that kind of money. We need indigent beds.”

The treatment industry is beset by fraud, as The Post has reported, sparking an FBI-led federal criminal investigation and recent arrests by a state attorney-led task force.

“The system is broken,’’ McKinlay said. “We are sending them out in the system without the safety net they need. A lot of times we put them in jail because we don’t have the rehab bed they can go to.”

>>How addicts, families can get help

Commissioner Paulette Burdick said she would like to find money to pay for beds for addicts and mental-health patients seeking treatment. Although families can file a Marchman Act petition to give involuntary treatment to a loved one, she said, that doesn’t help if there are no beds available.

“There are fewer and fewer places to provide treatment,’’ she said.

Earlier this month, Palm Beach County’s Heroin Task Force announced a pilot study to begin in January that will provide detox services, medications and guidance by a nurse or counselor to a limited number of addicts for a month after an overdose.

“There’s no other illness in this country where somebody would die waiting for a bed,” McKinlay said.

 >>How to recognize an overdose and save a life

“If you have heart attack or diabetic reaction or a stroke or the flu or the Zika virus, you’re going to have a bed at some hospital waiting for you. But God forbid if it’s substance-abuse related. Society doesn’t view that as an urgent medical need.

“It’s up to us as elected officials to start putting pressure on our state and federal partners on ways to provide some safe places for people to go when they need help.’’

Easton, who is in Mississippi preparing for her daughter’s funeral, said her daughter died in upstate New York after recently moving there, but had battled addiction issues in Palm Beach County for more than 11 years.

Easton said she wishes public officials would focus on providing as much money to fight the opioid epidemic as they do on building spring training stadiums.

“If we can forge relationships with Major League Baseball teams, biotech companies, lure worldwide corporation headquarters, fund the arts, import/replenish the sands on our beaches and build world class golf courses to attract visitors to our county, why in God’s name can’t we provide sufficient rehabilitation facilities for our own residents and those that are lured here by the worldwide marketing of South Florida as a sunny rehab haven?” she asked.

“I would ask the County Commission to recognize that addiction does not discriminate. Addiction is a disease and the historical stigma associated with it is only delaying positive results while the body count rises.”

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