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Free rent to lure sober home customers faces crackdown


One of Palm Beach County’s top prosecutors on Tuesday issued a stark statement to South Florida’s lucrative drug and alcohol treatment community: The way you’ve been operating is illegal.

For years, the county’s billion-dollar industry has treated addicts as if they were mules lured by a farmer’s carrots, with owners of sober homes and treatment centers enticing them with promises of free rent or gifts.

The practice is so prevalent that it’s now “industry standard,” Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson said in front of the county’s Sober Homes Task Force.

And all of it is criminal.

“Patient inducements such as cigarettes, gift cards, Xboxes, gym memberships, clothes, shoes, rent or rent subsidies and free plane tickets are illegal,” Johnson said. “Cash or other form of compensation to sober homes, brokers, marketers or patients, either offered or accepted, in return for the referral of patients to a treatment facility or recovery residence, is illegal.”

Johnson’s statement was cheered by John Lehman, president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, the not-for-profit group that oversees voluntary certification of sober homes for the Department of Children and Families. He issued a similar statement to his members the week before.

“We at FARR have been seeking someone in authority to clarify the statute for four years,” Lehman said. “Finally, the day has arrived.”

Florida has a law against patient brokering, which says that a dentist, for example, isn’t allowed to pay a headhunter to find new patients. And an eye doctor can’t lure patients with cash or free gifts.

But because some people consider the law confusing, and because authorities have failed to crack down on the practice in South Florida, inducements have become commonplace in the freewheeling and largely unregulated drug rehab industry.

Stories abound of treatment centers paying “marketers” — essentially, headhunters with no medical training or certification — $500 or more for every new addict they bring to their facility. The marketers often target group meetings and coffee shops to find new addicts.

They often offer free rent or gifts.

Just because it’s commonplace doesn’t mean operators will be allowed to get away with it, Johnson added.

“When you get pulled over by a cop on I-95 and you tell the cop you’re going with the flow of traffic, that’s not going to get you out of a ticket,” he said.

Lehman is skeptical that Johnson’s statement alone will clean up the industry — the practice has been going on too long, and there’s too much money at stake.

But the task force, which must file a report to legislators by year end, is trying. It likely will recommend that legislators change the law so that treatment centers can offer recovering addicts free rent in exchange for following stricter regulations. If that happens, it would allow authorities to better crack down on poorly run sober homes.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Johnson said their efforts will lead to the closure of numerous sober homes, and he warned officials to prepare for an increase in the number of homeless.

“There’s going to be no place for these people to live,” he said. “Either they will go home, and hopefully they have a home to go to, or they will be on the street.”

The heroin epidemic has taken a toll on addicts, their families and friends and the public officials who treat overdoses. So far this year, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue has treated about 1,800 opioid-related overdoses, more than double last year’s rate, Capt. Houston Park said.

About 545 people have died from all opioid overdoses, which includes heroin and OxyContin, in the county this year, he said.



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