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Opioid Overdoses Overwhelm South Florida's Addiction Centers


We're following a trend that resembles medical tourism, you know, where people travel somewhere interesting to get medical care.


Think of this trend as addiction tourism. Plenty of people in need of rehab for opioid addictions travel to South Florida. They're drawn by the promise of good treatment.

INSKEEP: Which doesn't always work. And that's why so many people from out of town are overdosing and dying in South Florida. Here's Peter Haden from member station WLRN.

PETER HADEN, BYLINE: The overdose call comes in around 7 p.m. on Friday. Delray Beach Fire Rescue paramedics jump into action and rush to a nearby hotel. But before they can treat this victim, another call comes in.

This is another call?

ANDRES COLON: Yeah. We have another overdose.

HADEN: How far do you suppose this is from where we just were?

COLON: A block - a block away.

HADEN: We find a middle-aged woman in a driveway slumped on a folding chair someone brought out from their house to prop her up. She's unresponsive. Her eyes rolled back in her head. Neighbors say a car pulled up to a stop sign, pushed the woman out and left.

ED BEARDSLEY: Her head is flopping back. Hold her airway open and bag her.

HADEN: Firefighters pull out an overdose reversal drug and blast it up her nose. She comes to.

BEARDSLEY: Hi. Open up your eyes for me, dear.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Checked her pockets?

BEARDSLEY: No. Let's cut them. Do you have any needles on you? You're not in trouble. We just don't want to get stuck with anything, OK?

HADEN: Firefighters load the woman into an ambulance and take off for the hospital. And Captain Mike Rodriguez gets ready for the next call.

MIKE RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, most the time, we find them inside homes. But the scenario itself is very common.

HADEN: Too common. Delray Beach is at the epicenter of a South Florida overdose epidemic that claimed more than 1,000 lives last year. And many of those victims were from out of state. They come by the thousands to get well. South Florida has long been a destination for world-class addiction treatment.

MICHAEL BORNSTEIN: You see these wonderful ads, come to South Florida - beaches, palm trees, ocean breezes. You can get clean.

HADEN: Michael Bornstein is city manager of nearby Lake Worth. An insurance industry report shows 75 percent of people getting treatment at private rehab centers in Florida came from other states. And with more than two and a half million Americans addicted to opioids...

BORNSTEIN: We're now having tourists come in for treatment. These young folks in their 20s from New Jersey, New York, Michigan - wherever the heck they're coming from. And their families send them here.

HADEN: Opioid abusers often relapse. And in recent years, the South Florida recovery industry has been rife with corruption.

BORNSTEIN: As soon as they extract all this insurance from - money from them and they test positive, they kick them out on the street with their wheely (ph) luggage. They don't even ship them back to where they're from. Now they're our problem because they come here. They drop out. They're on the street.

HADEN: South Florida drug treatment providers have recently pleaded guilty to charges including health care fraud, money laundering, sex trafficking and kickback schemes. Palm Beach County created its own task force to try to clean up the industry. And lawmakers are trying to strengthen lax oversight. Sidney Goodman is the founder of Caron Renaissance, one of the oldest and most respected drug treatment providers in the region.

SIDNEY GOODMAN: A lot of folks taking advantage of the fact that in Florida, there's really excellent access to care. There's so many treatment facilities. But on the other hand, the looseness of those regulations leads some to, frankly, put the economics of making money in front of quality clinical care.

HADEN: And that, says Lake Worth's Michael Bornstein, is straining communities, first responders and hospitals. They're overwhelmed by out-of-state addicts.

BORNSTEIN: And they are the ones that we have most of our issues with in dealing with the ODs, the near-deaths, the prostitution. It just escalates. It's incredibly unfair that the message isn't out. Don't send them here. Keep them where you are. We should focus on our own residents and people that have issues. Now we've got the burden of the rest of the country's being shipped here.

HADEN: Andy Amoroso sits on the Palm Beach County League of Cities. He says there are lots of good treatment providers in the region. But...

ANDY AMOROSO: There are South Florida residents that are dealing with these issues and can't always get services, can't always find beds because we're inundated with children from other states.

My message would be, stop sending your children and your loved ones to South Florida because we're sending them back in body bags.

HADEN: Amoroso says drug dealers are well aware that the treatment industry draws recovering addicts to South Florida. They often set up shop next door. For NPR News, I'm Peter Haden in Delray Beach, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Haden
Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.
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