- Christine Stapleton Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Florida lawmakers attacked the heroin overdose epidemic this year wherever they could find it — in courtrooms, call-centers, hospitals, sober homes and treatment centers.
Unlike recent years, when bills related to addiction and sober homes faced indifference and pious judgment, this year’s legislative session saw bipartisan bills flying through both houses unopposed.
Some of the urgency is a response to the unrelenting, rising death toll from overdoses of heroin and other opioids. However, credit also is being handed to Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, whose legislative-assigned task force came up with recommendations that won approval in both chambers.
Lawmakers gave Aronberg $275,000 in 2016 to create a task force to prosecute corruption and propose legislation to address insurance fraud, patient brokering and kickbacks in sober homes and treatment centers, which proliferate in Palm Beach County.
To head the task force, Aronberg assigned his chief assistant, Al Johnson, a veteran prosecutor known for his patience, dry humor and unflappability: “I have a bad habit of volunteering,” Johnson said.
“I think Al was seen as someone with integrity, not someone with bias and his public statements were all about going after bad actors,” said Aronberg, who was in Tallahassee during the session’s final week. “So, the industry had faith in Al and that he wasn’t trying to put the entire industry out of business.”
Johnson quickly realized the enormity of the problem, a problem detailed in Palm Beach Post stories dating to August 2015. The learning curve was steep. Most investigators and prosecutors had little experience in white-collar crime. Then, they needed to learn about addiction, how it is treated and the corrupt business model often practiced in South Florida, in which unnecessary drug testing of insured addicts are worth huge sums to treatment centers.
“Every step of the way I learned something,” Johnson said. “Many people were giving up that this course could be reversed.”
The task force convened a grand jury and submitted its findings to lawmakers. Then it began making arrests — 21 since October, most for patient brokering, which is when treatment centers pay as much as $500 a head for sober homes to send them insured addicts to treat and test.
Johnson created a smaller task force focused on crafting laws and tweaking others. Unlike the larger 35-member task force, which includes parents, owners and operators of sober homes and treatment centers, the 17-member proviso task force includes drug treatment experts, officials from government and non-profit agencies, and attorneys.
The proviso group met 10 times. During its three-hour meetings it dissected laws and debated deficiencies.
“There was a lot of trial and error,” Johnson said. “It was thoughtful and boring.”
In December, the group came up with a sweeping legislative wish-list that became HB 807 and its companion SB 788. When the session began in March, Johnson traveled to Tallahassee nearly every week, usually making the seven-hour trip by car, to support the legislation.
What the bill does
The bills breezed through seven committees in both houses unopposed. On Thursday, the second-to-last day of the session, the Senate unanimously approved the House version, sending it to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
The bill, which becomes law on July 1, addressed three concerns:
Aronberg, a state senator for eight years, said it usually takes years for major legislation to pass. It helped that the bill was commissioned by the Legislature in 2016 after a tough but more limited bill failed.
“I’ve been through this before but never on a life-or-death matter like this,” Aronberg said. “Lives will be saved because this passed this session.”
However, a bill, HB 477, proposing stiffer penalties for possession of fentanyl, the drug claiming the most lives in Florida, moved swiftly through the session until hitting a major roadblock the final week.
After the House and Senate differed on a key provision that had little to do with fentanyl, an impassioned debate split the Senate on Friday, pitting those in favor or minimum-mandatory sentences against those wanting to give judges more discretion in sentencing.
At issue, how to quantify the amount of fentanyl, deadly in extremely small doses, that would distinguish a drug user from a drug dealer and whether judges should also be allowed to make that distinction in sentencing.
Minimum-mandatory sentences are based on how much of the drug is being trafficked, usually measured in grams or pounds. The more weight, the stiffer the sentence.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi personally lobbied senators Friday, showing them a vial containing a few grains, enough to kill, and another loaded with 4 grams, the News Service of Florida reported.
The visuals helped Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, distinguish between addicts and dealers.
“There is no way to justify a vial that is as full as 4 grams as a user amount or an innocent amount,” Latvala told the News Service. The Senate voted 20-18 to keep the minimum-mandatory sentences and approved the House bill 31-7.
Although the session is scheduled to end Monday, Aronberg’s sober home task force is not slowing down. It meets again Tuesday.
Johnson already is thinking about the 2018 Legislature. His wish-list is due by the end of summer, he said.
On his agenda? Working with federal housing officials to develop regulations for sober homes. Carving out an exemption to Florida’s patient brokering and anti-kickback laws to allow newly recovered addicts to receive limited assistance, like free rent. Maybe even finding a way to establish a charitable, non-profit clearinghouse.
“Every step of the way I learned something,” Johnson said. “I haven’t begun to scratch the surface.”