U.S. Senator Bill Nelson

Serving Florida

Sens. Rubio, Nelson push bill to help consumers identify illicit sober homes

By Lois K. Solomon, Sun Sentinel
May 10, 2018

A list of the most common illicit practices associated with fraudulent sober homes and drug treatment centers would become accessible to the public under a bill introduced Thursday by U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.

The red flags, such as high levels of recidivism, lengthy patient stays and a location among other problematic homes, would be compiled by federal agencies and distributed to insurance companies, law enforcement, local and state policymakers and the public.

 “The nation’s opioid epidemic has devastated far too many American families, and the thought of losing a loved one is already frightening enough without having to worry about unscrupulous actors posing as legitimate treatment centers,” Rubio said in a statement. “This bill will target disreputable treatment centers and sober homes that have plagued Florida to ensure wrongdoers are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for the devastation they have caused too many families.”

South Florida residents have complained that sober homes, which transition drug addicts from treatment back into society, are changing the character of their neighborhoods by attracting unsavory operators and drug dealers who prey on recovering addicts.

Lawmakers are limited in how much they can ban the homes from neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act bar local governments from making outright prohibitions on sober homes or limiting them to certain neighborhoods.

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who created a Sober Home Task Force in 2016 to arrest and charge owners of deceitful treatment centers and sober homes, said the information the bill seeks to collect applies mostly to treatment centers.

He said analytics such as overbilling, levels of drug testing and rates of recidivism are not recorded by sober homes, which are little more than a house where people in recovery are living.

“These are good measures for drug treatment centers,” he said. “The federal government has done so little on this, it’s well-motivated, but it needs work.”

Melissa McKinlay, Palm Beach County’s mayor, sees the bill as a small step forward as lawmakers figure out how to regulate the industry, which has been plagued by misleading marketing and insurance fraud.

“Anything that helps consumers is a move in the right direction,” she said.

Palm Beach County recorded 592 opioid overdoses in 2016, up from 143 in 2012. In 2015, the county’s Fire-Rescue tallied 420 cases in which paramedics administered Narcan, an overdose antidote. A year later, that sum exploded to 2,598.

Local officials have estimated a price tag between $2,000 and $2,500 for each emergency call per overdose, a cost that falls on city and county taxpayers.

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In Broward County, 582 accidental overdose deaths were recorded in 2016. Of those, about 90 percent involved opioids, medical examiner Craig Mallak said.

Cary Glickstein, who was mayor of Delray Beach last year when the city sued 12 drug companies for damages from the opioid epidemic, said legislators need to update federal laws that place addicts in the same category as the disabled.

“Operators have exploited these loopholes for what they were never intended to do,” Glickstein said. “The industry is profiting off disability. They have an 80 to 90 percent failure rate. It’s a relapse industry, not a recovery industry.”

Palm Beach County has the highest number of licensed drug-treatment providers in the state at 217, compared with 134 in Broward County and 111 in Miami-Dade, according to a Sun Sentinel analysis of data from the Department of Children and Families.

The Nelson-Rubio bill, called the Sober Home Fraud Detection Act, also calls for the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to figure out the best ways for the public, insurers and law enforcement to report shady operators.