Aronberg warns of homeless crisis after sober home crackdown

At a meeting of the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation on Tuesday, State Attorney Dave Aronberg explained how he has spent the $275,000 lawmakers gave him to probe corruption in the drug treatment industry but warned that if the funding is not renewed, proactive efforts to combat corruption will likely end.heroin-front-page

“Our criminal investigations will continue beyond the appropriation,” Aronberg said, adding that the funding will stop on June 30, 2017. “The only difference will be that we will probably be back in a reactive mode as opposed to the task force being able to get in front of this.”

Aronberg did not make a pitch for a specific amount of money. Instead, he asked local lawmakers to watch the actions of the task force. Since its start on July 1, the task force has made seven arrests: two treatment providers and five sober home operators. All have been charged with multiple counts of patient brokering.

The task force has also drafted legislation which it hopes local lawmakers will sponsor and suggested tweaks to existing laws and regulations, Aronberg said.

“You’ve seen stories on all the unnecessary lives lost because of the heroin crisis,” Aronberg said, holding up a copy of the Nov. 20 front page of the Post, which displayed the faces of the 216 people who died of heroin-related overdoses in 2015.

Aronberg’s experience with cracking down on drugs dates back to his tenure as the state’s Drug Czar during the pill mill crisis a decade ago. Aronberg admitted that he knew that closing the pill mills would create a heroin crisis.

“Government doesn’t always do a good job of preventing,” Aronberg said. “It does a better job of reacting.”

However, Aronberg said he wants to be prepared for the by-product of the sober home crackdown: Homelessness.

“Once we shut down a lot of these sober homes, we’re going to have a homeless problem,” Aronberg said. Already, he has begun talks with the county commission about housing for addicts left homeless.

“Keep in mind, this could be the next front in this fight,” Aronberg said.

The Task Force has three units: Law enforcement, secret group that meets monthly to discuss criminal investigations; A proviso group, that has examined existing laws and regulations and will suggest changes; and the Sober Home Task Force, made up of sober home operators, treatment providers and the public.

Aronberg said some of the money went to hire a full-time investigator and criminal analyst. Aronberg has also assigned a prosecutor to work exclusively on corruption.

“I think Palm Beach County is going to be a leader in this effort,” Aronberg said. “We are creating a model that others can follow.”

 

 

 

How many addicts is too many to treat?

Physicians who prescribe buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction will no longer be limited to 100 patients. Under a rule change announced during a White House press conference on Tuesday, the new rule increases from 100 to 275 the number of patients that qualified physicians can treat.

Hypodermic needles mixed with cigarette butts and empty prescription bottles filled garbage bags recovered from a cottage apartment rented by Jean Thomas, 83, in West Palm Beach's Prospect Park neighborhood. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)
(Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

The announcement came as lawmakers today consider the President’s request for $1.1 billion to address the nation’s opioid epidemic, fueled largely by cheap heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl. Opioid overdoses kill 129 people every day in the U.S.

Buprenorphine, also known by the brand names Suboxone and Subutex, is among a handful of drugs that block the high produced by heroin and other opioids, such as Percocet and Oxycodone, and prevent the addict from suffering the painful side-effects of withdrawal.

These drugs – if misused – can produce a high. To prevent “diversion” – using the drugs to get high rather than to wean an addict off opioids – qualified physicians were only allowed to treat 100 patients with the drugs.

Critics claim that medication-assisted treatment with drugs such as buprenorphine still leave addicts dependent on a drug. They question whether a physician can adequately care for 275 addicts at once and fear buprenorphine clinics may become the new pill mills.

Still, providers, policymakers and experts have pointed to the current 100 patient limit as a barrier to treatment. Administration officials estimate the increased limit coupled with the President’s $1.1 billion budget request will enable 70,000 addicts to access treatment next year.

Under the President’s budget proposal, Florida would be eligible for up to $47 million dollars over 2
years to expand access to treatment. However, the final amount the state could receive depends on congressional approval of the budget and the strength of the State’s application and plan to combat the epidemic.

Florida lawmakers have expressed little interest in addressing the state’s heroin epidemic even though the state – especially south Florida – is considered the recovery capital of the U.S. A Palm Beach Post investigation of the county’s drug-treatment industry revealed evidence of patient-brokering, insurance fraud and kickbacks.

This year lawmakers reluctantly approved a bill that would allow researchers at a Miami hospital to operate a needle exchange program and shot down efforts to control unethical marketing practices in the billion-dollar drug treatment industry.

The homepage of the State’s Dept. of Health is devoted to controlling the spread of the Zika virus. Its “Programs and Services” menu makes no mention of addiction services.

Still unresolved is how uninsured addicts who wish to get clean will find in-patient beds during the initial detox procedure – which takes an estimated 7-10 days. Administration officials said Tuesday that grants will enable communities to develop programs to provide such care.

In Palm Beach County, the Drug Abuse Foundation in Delray Beach is the primary provider of in-patient detox beds for addicts who have no insurance and cannot afford to pay for detox. There is often a waiting list for those beds.