- Lulu Ramadan Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Florida’s burgeoning sober-home industry, fraught with fraud, will soon see oversight, as Gov. Rick Scott signed a sober home cleanup bill into law Monday.
The law targets shady marketing practices, including kickbacks and patient brokering, that draw addicts to seemingly unregulated sober homes and treatment facilities throughout the state with the promise of recovery.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s Sober Home Task Force, which crafted and championed the bills alongside local legislators, found that sober homes took payments to refer addicts to treatment centers, which billed for unnecessary and extensive drug testing.
Some industry players even plied addicts with drugs to force relapse and drive profits.
“It seems as if sobriety and relapse just work in a circle,” state Rep. Bill Hager, of Boca Raton, who sponsored the bill in the House, said earlier this year.
The state Senate version of the bill was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth.
The law, which takes effect Saturday, tackles condemned practices such as patient brokering by forcing sober-home telemarketers to register with the state. It also clarifies laws that make kickbacks illegal and requires background screenings for owners, directors and clinical supervisors of treatment centers.
It gives the state’s Department of Children and Families oversight of licensed treatment centers, with the power to visit the centers unannounced.
And it bars licensed facilities from referring patients to sober homes that aren’t voluntarily certified through the state.
Although sober homes aren’t forced to certify, this gives an incentive to voluntary certification through a Boca Raton-based nonprofit, Florida Association of Recovery Residences, which requires standards to be met.
The law also allows the Office of Statewide Prosecutor to pursue patient-brokering cases, and adds patient brokering to a list of crimes punishable under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, or RICO. Under RICO, patterned after the federal law originally aimed at mobsters, law enforcement can crack down on organized groups in the sober-home industry.
The law is the latest in local and statewide efforts to combat the opioid epidemic and rampant misconduct in South Florida’s recovery industry.
In May, Scott issued a public health emergency about the opioid epidemic, which gave the state access to federal grant money for prevention and treatment.
In Palm Beach County — where every 15 hours this past year, someone died of an opioid overdose — some local cities at the front lines of the epidemic have taken action. Delray Beach and Boynton Beach shared plans to regulate the proliferation of sober homes, which city officials say are causing a strain on taxpayer resources.
Aronberg’s task force has made more than two dozen arrests of recovery industry players since October, with promises of more to come.