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Addiction hits home in emotional Palm Beach County meeting on opioid settlement

A person speaks from a lectern while people watch from the dais
Joel Engelhardt
Austin Wright, right, with Rebel Recovery, speaks May 21 with Palm Beach County commissioners considering a plan for spending $148 million in opioid settlement money.

The recommendation on spending nearly $150 million in opioid settlement money over 20 years received a warm — and sympathetic — reaction last week from the Palm Beach County Commission.

“I just want to say that I’ve never been to a County Commission meeting, ever, that was so heartfelt,” Mayor Maria Sachs said at the end of nearly three hoursof presentations and testimony that featured personal comments from commissioners, as well as the public. “I don’t think there’s a family that has not been affected by this scourge.”

While comedian John Oliver last week lambastedlocal governments for spending settlement money on police wish lists or budget gaps, in Palm Beach County an advisory committee led by the recovery community spent two years developing a person-centered approach, as Stet News reported last week here.

At the May 21 meeting, commissioners shared their own tragic stories as they supported the plan.

“Thank you to Rebel Recovery,” Commissioner Michael Barnett told a representative of the addiction recovery center that runs a syringe-exchange program. “I had a family member, my brother, who benefited from your services. Unfortunately, like a lot of family members here, he did pass away. Overdosed last year. 

“I was very skeptical when I first learned years ago about the syringe-exchange program but I’ve learned that it does save lives.”

Advocating support for families left behind by loss, Commissioner Sara Baxter said: “I hate saying this. It's like ripping a Band-Aid off, but most people know by now. I have lost two sisters from this. … They (families) need support. I’m telling you, if we forget that part of this, the rest fails.”

Commissioner Gregg Weiss added, “Like Commissioner Barnett, I also lost a brother,” he said before a long pause. “I can’t remember, actually, who said it first, about ‘the blood money.’ But that’s what this is. This is money because how the medical community in conjunction with the pharmaceutical community has put this poison out there.”

County Administrator Verdenia Baker pointed out that addiction services are not limited to those caught up in the opioid epidemic.

“I’ve lived this and I still live it,” Baker said. “My brother left high school — one of my mother’s brightest kids. He went to the military. Two years later he was dishonored, put out, because he was hooked on crack cocaine. 

“And so, for 40-plus years, he gets clean, we work with him and something triggers. He goes back. So it’s a little different. He didn’t die but we had other cousins that did. Whole generations of them.”

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