Hours after declaring the opioid overdose epidemic a public health crisis, Gov. Rick Scott said he was not aware that a bill targeting corruption in the drug treatment industry had not been called up for a final vote in the Senate.
Although SB 788 unanimously passed its four committee stops and its House companion, HB 807, cleared the floor on Monday with a unanimous vote, Senate leaders have not scheduled the bill for a final vote.
Unknown is whether Republican Senate President Joe Negron has or will act on the bill.
The Senate’s refusal to hear the bill has the bill’s drafters and backers shaking their heads and scrambling. The halt in the bill’s trajectory is also baffling because it is the byproduct of the legislature’s own directive to tighten laws governing the drug treatment industry.
Last year lawmakers gave Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg $250,000 to investigate corruption and propose legislative solutions.
Aronberg created the Sober Home Task Force and appointed Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson to lead efforts to prosecute and propose legislation. The task force has made 21 arrests since October. Johnson held more than a dozen public meetings to craft new legislation.
Those proposals were drafted into HB 807 and SB 788.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Johnson, who is in Tallahasee with Aronberg.
Scott’s decision came after the last of four state workshops on the opioid crisis this morning in Duval County. State officials held their first workshop Monday in West Palm Beach followed by two on Tuesday in Manatee and Orange counties.
Many people who attended the workshops called for him to declare a public health emergency.
“Finally,” said Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Melissa McKinlay, who made the first request for a public health emergency back in February.
“Today I feel relief. relief that the voices of so many were finally heard. For the pain of loss so many families have faced, to those struggling to overcome addition,” she said.
“I am hopeful that the governor’s direction to declare a public health crisis in response to the opioid epidemic will open the door to a truly meaningful plan to fight this disease.”
McKinlay’s request, which triggered other leaders to send similar requests, came after The Palm Beach Post published a special section examining the crisis. That section, Heroin: Killer of a generation, was published days after the daughter of McKinlay’s chief aide died of a drug overdose.
“This emergency declaration is important to combat the epidemic in our communities,” said Jupiter Vice Mayor Ilan Kaufer, who helped spearhead a declaration request by the Palm Beach County League of Cities in March.
“I am thankful to all the local leaders and community members who supported efforts to let the Governor know how important this step was in saving lives.”
Check back later for updates on this developing story.
Here is a press release issued minutes ago by Scott’s office:
Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declaring a national opioid epidemic, Governor Rick Scott signed Executive Order 17-146 directing a Public Health Emergency across the state. By signing the Emergency Order, it will allow the state to immediately draw down more than $27 million in federal grant funding from the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Opioid State Targeted Response Grant which was awarded to Florida on April 21 to provide prevention, treatment and recovery support services. Without the order, it would have taken months for the state to distribute these funds to local communities. In addition to declaring a Public Health Emergency, Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip will issue a standing order for Naloxen, an emergency treatment for opioid overdose. This will ensure first responders have immediate access to this lifesaving drug to respond to opioid overdoses.
Governor Scott said, “Today, I issued an executive order which allows the state to immediately draw down more than $27 million in federal grant funding which will immediately be distributed to communities across the state to deal with the opioid epidemic. HHS Secretary Dr. Tom Price awarded the Opioid State Targeted Response Grant to Florida and I want to thank the Trump Administration for their focus on this national epidemic. I have also directed State Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip to declare a Public Health Emergency and issue a standing order for Naloxone in response to the opioid epidemic in Florida.
“Last month, I directed the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Department of Health (DOH) and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to meet with communities in Palm Beach, Manatee, Duval and Orange Counties to identify additional strategies to fight the rising opioidusage cases in Florida. They have gotten a lot of feedback this week and we will continue to look at additional ways we can fight this national epidemic which has taken the lives of many Floridians.
“I know firsthand how heartbreaking substance abuse can be to a family because it impacted my own family growing up. The individuals struggling with drug use are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends and each tragic case leaves loved ones searching for answers and praying for help. Families across our nation are fighting the opioid epidemic and Florida is going to do everything possible to help our communities.”
Attorney General Pam Bondi said, “This declaration will help strengthen our continued efforts to combat the national opioid epidemic claiming lives in Florida by providing additional funding to secure prevention, treatment and recovery support services. I want to thank Governor Rick Scott for his continued partnership in combating drug abuse in our state; from shutting down pill mills to outlawing deadly synthetic drugs, Governor Scott has long supported efforts by my office and law enforcement to raise awareness, stop drug abuse and save lives.”
Florida Surgeon General said she has not ruled out declaring a public health emergency for the opioid epidemic.
Dr. Celeste Philip said a public health emergency declaration must be linked to an action plan to address the emergency. That, she added, is why the four-stop listening tour she is on with other top agency officials is so important. Hearing how the hardest hit communities are dealing with the crisis will help in creating that plan, she said.
The opioid crisis is much more complex, she said: “We’re dealing with two different kinds of situations. The opioid crisis is very complex.”
In her comments in West Palm Beach and Sarasota, Dr. Philip emphasized the need to educate physicians and medical students about the hazards of prescribing opioids and alternative protocols to manage pain. In particular, pressing medical schools to develop curriculum about addiction and pain management – topics that were barely addressed during her medical training.
The tour began Monday at the West Palm Beach Police Department, where Dr. Philip, DCF Sec. Mike Carrol and over a dozen other state officials were greeted by protesters demanding action. About 250 recovering addicts, advocates and friends and family of overdose victims crammed into a meeting room at the department.
By contrast, Tuesday’s meeting in Sarasota was quiet. No protests or cat-calls from the crowd of about 100 during the 2-hour meeting. The group headed to Orlando for another meeting on Tuesday afternoon. The final meeting is in Jacksonville on Wednesday.
A former clinical director at the notorious drug rehab center run by Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman was sentenced to four years and nine months in federal prison today.
Barry Gregory was responsible for overseeing patients’ treatment plans at Chatman’s Reflections Treatment Center. But he largely turned a blind eye to problems there; he admitted in February to signing orders for patients to take urine and saliva tests that weren’t necessary, and he ordered DNA and allergy tests regardless of whether patients complained of allergies.
Gregory pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud and knowingly falsifying a matter involving health care programs.
He joins six other people, including Chatman’s wife, who have pleaded guilty to various federal crimes related to Chatman’s drug treatment centers.
Chatman, first exposed in a 2015 Palm Beach Post story, created Reflections in a central Broward County strip mall in 2013. In Palm Beach County, he ran a series of sober homes that were notorious drug dens. He admitted last month to turning some of his female patients into prostitutes, pimping them out on websites like Craigslist and Backpage.
Chatman built Reflections into a multi-million dollar treatment center, and Gregory, a licensed mental health counselor, was instrumental in making that happen.
Chatman hired him in July 2015 to a position where Gregory would oversee addicts’ treatment and counseling. But Chatman was the one who dictated which patients were admitted and how they were treated, Gregory admitted.
When he was hired, Reflections was still on probation with the Department of Children and Family Services. Gregory was the one who filled out the forms to get Reflections fully licensed. To do so, he helped hide the business under Chatman’s wife’s name; because Chatman was a felon, he couldn’t legally own or operate a treatment center.
When Chatman wanted to open up a second treatment center, Journey to Recovery, in Lake Worth, Gregory again helped him fill out the forms, knowing that Chatman, and not Laura, was the real owner of the business.
Federal prosecutors said Gregory has shown remorse for his actions.
“While the defendant has not yet completed his cooperation, he has fully accepted responsibility, recognized his wrongdoing and shown true remorse, and assisted significantly in the investigation,” federal prosecutors wrote in a recent filing.
Chatman and his wife are scheduled to be sentenced May 17. He faces up to life behind bars. His wife, Laura, faces up to 10 years in prison.
More co-defendants of recovery industry pariah Kenny Chatman were sentenced to federal prison on Monday, but Chatman’s lawyer said he’ll need another month to figure out how to defend his client in sentencing.
On Monday, three of Chatman’s team were sentenced to a combined 12-1/2 years in federal prison. They pled guilty in a case in which Chatman is charged with supplying drugs to patients in his treatment program and sober homes and turning some into prostitutes.
Fransesia “Francine” Davis, who acted as a house mother at Chatman’s sober homes, was sentenced to 7 years in federal prison. Michael Bonds, who sent his own patients to Chatman’s corrupt treatment centers in exchange for payments, was given 4.75 years in prison. Stefan Gatt, who processed fraudulent urine samples from Chatman’s patients, was given an 18-month sentence.
Chatman has pleaded guilty in the case, but may not be sentenced until mid-June. His attorney, Saam Zangeneh, said he needs more time to read a sentencing of 300 paragraphs that includes “a slew of (sentencing) enhancements that are outside the scope of the plea agreement,” Zangeneh wrote Monday.
Kenny Chatman faces life in prison. His wife, Laura, faces 10 years in prison.
In a request for a lighter sentence, Bonds said he’d helped lead investigators to several arrests in his federal case and nine people in state court cases. His lawyer said he expected federal prosecutors agree to a lighter sentence. Instead, they filed paperwork last week calling for a full sentence of 4.75 years in prison – not far above the 48 months he got.
Bonds and Gatt were also sentenced to three years’ probation and Davis to one year probation. Each must also pay an undetermined amount of restitution, federal records show. All three pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, while Davis also faced a charge of using a house to distribute drugs.
A recruiter for Kenny Chatman‘s drug treatment centers says his cooperation with state and local investigators led to about a dozen arrests.
A new federal court filing for Michael Bonds shows how defendants in several cases are being used against each other, as well as cooperation between federal and state officials trying to crack down on South Florida’s corruption-plagued sober home industry. Bonds’ attorney, Paul Walsh of West Palm Beach, said in a filing that he expects federal officials will also ask for leniency in the case because of Bonds’ cooperation.
Walsh wrote that in exchange for Bonds’ cooperation, Bonds and his wife have feared for their safety because of implied threats, “including a call from an individual whom Bonds provided information about, telling Bonds that he would ‘get his.'”
Bonds pleaded guilty in February to taking $240,000 from Chatman for referring patients to Chatman’s treatment centers. Chatman, Bonds and four other associates were arrested Dec. 21. The filing says Bonds has been helping investigators since August, and “has continuously provided assistance whenever called upon and as needed by the government.”
How far did that cooperation go? The filing says Bonds has been working with officials, including a Delray Beach Police Department investigator, to yield “results that are useful to the government.” A grammatically troubled sentence says he offered help on people in the recovery industry, and “This information led to prior to the arrest of at least nine individuals in State court and several individuals in this [federal] matter.”
Bonds is scheduled to be sentenced at 10 a.m. Monday in federal district court in West Palm Beach. He had been running Redemption Sober House Inc., and was getting about $500 a week for each patient he supplied to Chatman.
Chatman is scheduled to be sentenced next month. He admitted in federal court that he’d turned patients into prostitutes and, when they were supposed to be recovering from drugs, fueled their addiction.
While immediate associates of Chatman have been prosecuted in federal court, the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force has arrested at least 20 people for prosecution in state courts.
But unlike vending machines that dispense candy and snacks, no money is needed. Addicts participating in the pilot project scan a card and enter a unique ID number in order to vend one of the colorfully gift-wrapped boxes. Each box contains syringes, alcohol wipes, safe-sex supplies and a sharps disposal box.
Besides providing intravenous drug users with access to sterile needles and disposal of used ones, the program serves as a gateway to services and care that addicts may not access otherwise.
Justin Kunzelman, CEO and co-founder of Rebel Recovery Florida in West Palm Beach, said vending machine needle exchanges are the “most objective and honest,” harm reduction programs because they are unmanned.
Lawmakers worry that by endorsing needle-exchange programs it will appear that they are helping addicts use drugs, Kunzelman said. To avoid that, they impose conditions on needle exchanges that discourage addicts, such as requiring them to provide personal information, get tested for other diseases and receive counseling.
Vending machines don’t ask questions, he added.
“It’s a machine,” Kunzelman said. “It’s not asking you how many times you have been arrested, what’s your sexual orientation – all of the things that come along inherently when the legislature passes acts.”
Nevada is the first U.S. state to launch a vending machine program for clean syringes, but the vending machine model has been in use for several years in Puerto Rico, Europe, and Australia.
In Indiana, after roughly 200 people contracted HIV from sharing needles, Vice President Mike Pence – then the governor – lifted a ban on needle exchanges in 2015 in affected counties.
Still, many communities and states prohibit needle exchange programs even though they are endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But lawmakers refused to pay for it. And everywhere else in the state, including Palm Beach County, supplying addicts with clean syringes is a third-degree felony.
With more addicts dying of overdoses than ever before, some policy makers are warming to the idea of needle exchanges and other harm reduction programs that encourage recovery.
When the Palm Beach County Heroin Task Force began meeting in June 2016, Kunzelman’s efforts to discuss needle exchanges ended when he stopped talking. Today, it is among topics discussed.
At its April 4 special meeting on the opioid epidemic, Palm Beach County Mayor Paulette Burdick suggested the county explore a needle exchange program and how the county might pay for it.
Kunzelman and several other harm-reduction advocates met with Palm Beach County Health Department Director Dr. Alina Alonso last week and intend to bring up a needle exchange during the Governor’s 90-minute workshop on the opioid crisis on May 1.
“They’re still getting used to the idea that current policies aren’t working,” Kunzelman said. “I think it will take awhile.”
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control emphasizes just how quickly illicit street fentanyl can kill drug users, and the report suggests moves that are politically unpopular — such as illegal drug “shooting galleries” in supervised injection locations — can save lives.
The CDC interviewed 64 people in Massachusetts, nearly all of whom had witnessed an overdose in the previous six months; two-fifths of those people also had overdosed themselves. One person warned about how much worse fentanyl was than heroin:
“A person overdosing on regular dope leans back and drops and then suddenly stops talking in the middle of a conversation and you look over and realize they’re overdosing. Not like with fentanyl. I would say you notice it as soon as they are done [injecting]. They don’t even have time to pull the needle out and they’re on the ground.”
And fentanyl is increasing faster than authorities can deal with it. In six months, fentanyl went from being present in about two-fifths of opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts to almost four-fifths. And that data is already two years old. The CDC report warns that the report doesn’t include fentanyl analogs, which can be far stronger.
Palm Beach County wasn’t testing for drugs like carfentanil, a horrifically strong elephant tranquilizer, until last year. The drug helped double the number of Palm Beach County opioid overdoses last year, with carfentanil being found in at least 109 bodies. Carfentanil is said to be 10,000 times stronger than morphine.
Overdoses with fentanyl and especially carfentanil are much harder to reverse using drugs like Narcan and its generic, naloxone. The CDC notes that multiple doses of Narcan are often required. One example of a man trying to save a woman’s life:
“So he put half up one [nostril] and half up the other nose, like they trained us to do, and she didn’t come to. So he put water on her face and kind of slapped her, which doesn’t really make you come to. It doesn’t. So he pulled out another thing of Narcan and he put half of it up one nose and then she came to. … She just didn’t remember anything. She said, ‘What happened? I remember washing my hands and, like, what happened?’ We said, ‘You just overdosed in this room!’ So yeah, it was wicked scary.”
How fast? The CDC itself reported that “Rapidity of overdose death was determined from available evidence, including needles inserted in decedents’ bodies, syringes found in hand, tourniquets still in place, and bystander reports of rapid unconsciousness after drug use.” Lips immediately turned blue; people started gurgling or having something like seizures.
The CDC report also pointed to high numbers of overdoses away from people who could help sufficiently. Some 18 percent were away from bystanders; 58 percent were in another room of the house; 24 percent didn’t know about the drug use; 12 percent themselves were intoxicated; 11 percent didn’t recognize overdose symptom and 15 percent thought the person had just gone to sleep. All that means high-quality interventions are few and far between: “Clear evidence that a bystander was unimpaired, witnessed the drug consumption and was present during an overdose (i.e., able to respond immediately) was reported in 1% of the fentanyl overdose decedent charts,” the CDC reported.
The CDC suggested harm reduction services can help. “The high percentage of fatal overdoses occurring at home with no naloxone present, coupled with the rapid onset of overdose symptoms after using fentanyl through injection or insufflation, underscores the the urgent need to expand initiatives to link persons at high risk for overdose (such as persons using heroin, persons with past overdoses, or persons recently released from incarceration) to harm reduction services and evidence-based treatment.”
The newspaper’s front page that day included the faces off all 216 people who died of an accidental opioid-related overdose in Palm Beach County in 2015.
“State of Emergency” — which will be performed around 6 p.m. Sunday during the KeroWacked Festival in the Boynton Beach Art District — is set to a poem entitled, “And I Listened” by Shannon Willis.
Scattered among the verses is a reading of names of lives lost to addiction and overdose.
Local actor and recovery advocate Gary Kimble will be performing the verse, while James Fata, local recovery advocate and chapter lead for Young People In Recovery lists the names of those we have lost.
Gosselin, co-Founder of See Change Dance will dance in remembrance. Community members are invited to participate and hold banners inscribed with a name and a memory of someone they’ve lost to substance use disorder and/or accidental overdose.
The intent, Gosselin said, is to humanize an epidemic that killed nearly 600 people in Palm Beach County last year as well as thousands across the United States.
“These are people, not statistics,’’ she said. “Their lives matter. The performance is a call to compassionate action toward stopping this modern day plague.’’
The festival starts at noon and ends at 10 p.m., said organizer Rolando Chang Barrero.
It will be held from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the West Palm Beach Police headquarters, 600 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach.
Two counties will have workshops on May 2 — Manatee and Orange counties. Duval County’s workshop will be May 3.
The workshops, announced Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, will be hosted by DCF, the state Department of Health and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“Similar to many communities across the nation, Palm Beach, Manatee, Duval, and Orange counties are facing an increase in opioid-related deaths,” DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in an email sent to local officials.
“DCF, DOH, and FDLE will host community workshops with local leaders, law enforcement, health directors, treatment providers and community members.
“Community workshops will provide important opportunities for DCF, DOH and FDLE to directly hear the specific needs of affected communities as well as provide information on existing resources, best parctices and grant opportunities.”