By Jane Smith
Two years, $575,000, 54 arrests, 20 convictions and several laws later, the county Sober Homes Task Force will continue. Since July 1, the start of the state’s financial year, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office is absorbing the cost. The state money given to the Task Force initially was seed money to get the program going. That funding is no longer part of the state budget.
“Our Sober Homes Task Force has helped cause a dramatic drop in opioid overdose deaths locally, but there’s still more work to be done,” said Dave Aronberg, state attorney. “The opioid epidemic is the No. 1 public health and criminal justice issue facing Palm Beach County and all of Florida.”
For the first four months of 2018, the county medical examiner confirmed 80 fatal opioid overdoses, compared with 233 for the same period in 2017, falling about 65 percent. Three staffers, hired specifically for the task force, remain at the State Attorney’s Office: an assistant state attorney, an insurance fraud investigator and an analyst. Chief Assistant Al Johnson has added his role on the task force to his other duties.
The task force has retained its law enforcement team, and a single public advisory group remains composed of 21 industry leaders and local representatives.
Southeast county representatives are Richard Casey, Caron Renaissance and Caron Ocean Drive, Boca Raton; Ariana Ciancio, Delray Beach Police Department; Karen Dodge, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton; Jeffrey Lynne, lawyer, Boca Raton; and Terrill Pyburn, special counsel who helped craft the Delray Beach group homes ordinance.
The task force has concentrated on two areas: arresting bad operators and toughening industry regulations.
Members focused on cleaning up “the Florida model,” where addicts spend a week or so in detox, 21 days in rehab and then live in a sober home while attending treatment during the day at a nearby facility. More work remains to be done.
In 2016, few Florida sober homes were certified as recovery residences and lacked standard procedures.
The Florida Association of Recovery Residences, recognized by the state to oversee sober homes, now has certified 67 programs in the county and has another 146 in the application process, according to the organization.
As of July 1, treatment centers that receive state dollars must release patients only to certified recovery residences. Next July, they will be fined $1,000 per violation. Other legislative changes include tougher patient brokering laws that increase penalties when a treatment center operator pays a sober home manager to send clients to that center. In addition, marketers now have to be licensed and adhere to basic standards.
In 2018, Florida’s governor backed a bill limiting opioid prescriptions to a three-day supply after surgeries and up to seven days, if warranted. It became law July 1.
But the legislature did not act on a bill the task force proposed, so the group’s lobbying efforts felt less successful this time around. “We were assured that our bill would be brought up on the last day,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t.”
The bill would have required a criminal background check for anyone who has contact with a substance abuser at a sober home. The task force plans to revise that bill, try again to expand the needle-exchange program into Broward and Palm Beach counties, and work with insurance companies to change how they pay for substance abuse treatment.
The fee-for-service payment encourages relapses, Johnson said. “We want them to see addiction as a chronic disease, such as diabetes, that needs a continuum of care,” he said.