Sober home cleanup bill on path to OK after dangling all week

A bill that would crack down on shady business practices in the drug-treatment industry is on a path to approval after its fate was up in the air for days.

With a heavy dose of local lobbying, the bill to crack down on bad sober homes survived a key calendar call Wednesday to make it to the Senate floor Thursday. It must pass the Senate twice before lawmakers stop hearing bills on Friday.

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, whose task force shaped the bill, pressed for its passage with a local contingent that included County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay and one of Aronberg’s top deputies, Al Johnson.

“We’re optimistic about its passage once it’s placed (on the calendar),” Aronberg said early Wednesday, before the bill advanced. “It’s one of these sausage-being-made, end-of-session issues that we are hopeful the Legislature will do the right thing. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say this is a life-or-death issue.”

» RELATED: ‘Finally,’ Gov. Scott declares opioid epidemic a public health emergency

The bill’s fate appeared Wednesday to be in the control of former Wellington Village Council member Lizbeth Benacquisto, the Senate Rules chairwoman who was first elected to the Senate from Palm Beach County in 2010 but is now based in Fort Myers.

On Tuesday, the bill did not advance to the Senate floor. If it didn’t get the nod Wednesday — the day Gov. Rick Scott declared a public health emergency to attack the opioid and heroin epidemic sweeping the state — supporters said there would not be enough time for it to pass.

Before announcing that the bill would advance, Benacquisto said, “I see prayers in the audience.”

Earlier she said: “I understand the depth of the problem that is being experienced in Palm Beach County and the way these facilities are using the folks who are dealing with addiction to profit. Addressing that issue through legislation is important, it is warranted and I’m hopeful that we see a very positive result.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, would tackle condemned practices such as patient brokering by forcing sober home telemarketers to register with the state. It also would clarify laws that make kickbacks illegal and require background screenings for owners, directors and clinical supervisors of treatment centers.

As The Post has reported, sober home owners working closely with treatment centers, have made millions on unnecessary drug-screening of insured addicts. An addict with insurance often is viewed as a commodity, with treatment centers paying sober homes as much as $500 a week to assure a steady flow.

Although SB 788 unanimously passed its four committee stops and its House companion, HB 807, cleared the floor last week, the Senate’s refusal to hear the bill had its drafters and supporters scrambling. The delays this week also baffled supporters because the bill is the byproduct of the Legislature’s own directive to tighten laws governing the drug treatment industry.

In 2016, lawmakers gave Aronberg $250,000 to propose legislative solutions and expose corruption.

Aronberg’s task force, headed by Johnson, has made 21 arrests since October and held more than a dozen public meetings to craft the legislation.

Those proposals were drafted into HB 807, sponsored by Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, and SB 788, backed by Clemens.

If it emerges from the Senate, the bill would land on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk for approval. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office would be granted the power to investigate patient brokering cases under the legislation, praised the bills at a mid-April news conference, touting them as a way to force illicit sober homes to clean up or close down.

“Hopefully, the declaration of public health emergency will send the message to the Legislature that time is of the essence when addressing this opioid crisis,” Aronberg said. “I think it would be a tragedy to have to wait another year before meaningful sober home reform can occur in Tallahassee.”

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