By any measure, a newspaper series using months of interviews and data collection to offer personal profiles of each of the 216 people who died from heroin, fentanyl or illicit morphine overdoses in one year in one county amounts to a gripping portrayal. But the tempered expectations of concrete long-term impacts from The Palm Beach Post’s exemplary reporting say a great deal about the uniqueness of a South Florida community that has become a magnet for rehab and recovery, in all of their good and bad manifestations.
“In the other places I’ve worked, a story like that would be very galvanizing,” Paul Ahr, a former state behavioral health commissioner and addiction treatment executive who now runs a business consulting practice in Palm Beach County, told ADAW. “Folks would be asking right away to meet with their state legislators and other leaders. It doesn’t seem to have the same impact here.”
So while most agree that the Post’s “Generation Heroin” project went a long way toward humanizing a regional crisis and demonstrating that it does not discriminate across societal lines, it remains in doubt whether the attention will spur meaningful action at the governmental level or within the treatment and recovery communities. The challenge, say Ahr and others, lies in the fact that many of the overdose victims in Palm Beach County were recent transplants to Florida from someplace else — most lured by the promise of recovery in an attractive setting.
“Many people here believe that the best way to keep them from dying in our community is to keep them from coming to our community,” said Ahr, who formerly ran Camillus House in Miami-Dade County.
Strong local reactions
This is not to say that the Post coverage that was published just before Thanksgiving did not inspire swift and strong reactions. On the day after the Post’s print issue report appeared, Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay pledged to gather information on the county’s present opioid-fighting strategies and launch a broader dialogue with other government entities on how to link addicts to better treatment options.
Also fresh in McKinlay’s mind was the November death, from a suspected overdose, of the 33-year-old daughter of one of the commissioner’s longtime aides. One of the Post’s investigative reporters told ADAW that McKinlay and some of her fellow commissioners already are discussing ideas such as a dedicated revenue source for extended treatment services and an increase in the budget for the county medical examiner’s office.
While most agree that a number of sectors bear responsibility for achieving meaningful solutions, Post investigative reporter Pat Beall said the series generally pointed in the direction of the need for government action. She added that a “complete dearth of publicly funded beds” has helped create a striking imbalance between the haves and have nots in the population affected by opioid dependence.
The Post investigative team observed during its research that the relative lack of action in Florida is made more glaring in light of the progress being made in some small conservative communities elsewhere in the country. In one rural Kentucky county, for example, leaders decided “they needed to be starting a needle exchange program because they thought they had nine addicts,” Beall said.
However, those nine addicts likely are well-known in their community, unlike many of the 216 overdose victims in highly transient Palm Beach County — some of whom died in the bedrooms of sober homes located hundreds or thousands of miles away from their loved ones.
“This is an entirely different environment than anywhere in the country,” John Lehman, president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, told ADAW. “This is seen as largely about people coming here from out of state. And there is a sentiment here that addicts deserve what they get.”
Lack of political will
Lehman’s organization has been at the forefront of efforts to weed out unethical treatment and recovery support providers and to shine a light on unholy alliances between some outpatient treatment providers and sober home operators. One of those efforts, which spurred state legislation and a statewide certification process for recovery residences, is being slowed by the fact that it is financially supported by the participating organizations and has no long-term dedicated funding source.
“Tallahassee is simply not committed to investing in systems that enhance awareness, treatment and recovery support services,” Lehman said. “Addiction is, in the minds of many Florida legislators, a matter of choice, resulting in the ‘yes, it’s tragic, but they deserve what they get’ attitude that most other states have abandoned in favor of ‘this is a health care crisis that impacts all of us and we need to respond immediately.’”
A spokesperson for the statewide association of addiction treatment provider organizations in Florida says a number of stakeholders were scheduled to meet late last week to form a coalition that in January will call for a statewide action plan to combat the opioid crisis.
“Never has there been so significant a public health crisis that has received so little attention,” Rebecca Roberts, director of communications for the Florida Alcohol & Drug Abuse Association, told ADAW.
Some leaders in Florida point comparatively to an urgent state response this year to a Zika virus threat that has claimed no lives in South Florida.
Efforts in law enforcement in Palm Beach County have been aggressive in recent months, as State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s formation of a sober home task force has led to the arrest of seven providers of recovery housing or treatment services on charges of violating prohibitions against patient brokering. The task force’s effort could lead to concrete state legislative proposals for next year, although it remains to be seen whether these will be designed more to improve patient and resident protections or merely to try to regulate the industry out of the county.
Some political leaders representing South Florida have gone as far as to suggest altering the Fair Housing Act on the federal level in order to assert more local control over the siting of recovery housing.
The Palm Beach Post last month put a human face on each of Palm Beach County, Fla.’s heroin overdose deaths in 2015, but some leaders see too little public outrage over the tragedy.