Bills filed by Palm Beach County lawmakers that would target unethical marketing practices in the drug-treatment industry, moving forward with statewide support and the governor’s backing, have advanced to the floor in the state House and Senate.
Republican Rep. Bill Hager of Boca Raton and Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth sponsored parallel bills, endorsed April 11 by Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi at a news conference on the opioid epidemic sweeping the state and nation. It remains to be seen whether the full House and Senate will embrace the bills as well.
Hager’s bill quickly cleared three House panels, bringing it to the House floor as the session enters its final weeks. Clemens’ cleared the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday, with one effort to delay it blocked by Clemens, who said delays would just lead to more deaths.
Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, a co-sponsor of Hager’s bill, is confident it will pass.
“It’s being very positively received here in the House,” she said.
The bills — House Bill 807 and Senate Bill 788 — emerged from December recommendations of Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s Sober Home Task Force, which was charged by the Legislature with crafting legislation after similar bills failed in 2016.
The task force revealed shady business practices including unethical marketing, kickbacks and patient brokering, much of which followed a series of stories over two years in The Palm Beach Post.
“It seems as if sobriety and relapse just work in in a circle,” Hager said as the bill advanced.
Driven by huge profits from insurance payments for extensive drug testing, some sober homes took payments to refer lucrative addicts to treatment centers, which billed insurance for unnecessary testing, The Post’s reporting showed.
Bondi said some industry players plied addicts with drugs to keep them in the system.
“This is the worst kind of drug dealer there is,” she said. “They’re going around the country marketing themselves as ‘bring your child down here, bring your loved one down here and we’re going to cure you.’”
The bills would force sober home telemarketers to register with the state, clarify laws that make kickbacks illegal and require background screenings for owners, directors and clinical supervisors of treatment centers.
They would allow the Office of Statewide Prosecutor to pursue patient brokering cases, which would take some pressure off local law enforcement.
It also 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.
The chief difference between the two bills is in the state’s attempt to create licensure requirements for treatment facilities.
Under Hager’s bill, the Department of Children and Families would oversee licensed treatment centers, with the power to visit the centers unannounced. It also would bar licensed facilities from referring patients to sober homes that aren’t voluntarily certified through the state.
The sober homes would not be required to certify.
Clemens’ bill mandates that all treatment facility staff having contact with patients be licensed or certified. It also allocates $194,000 to the attorney general’s office for two more prosecutors to handle enforcement.
The bills would have to be reconciled if they emerge from their respective chambers.
Bondi said she is confident the legislation, along with a separate bill that would tighten penalties against trafficking in the lethal painkiller fentanyl, will pressure illicit sober homes to clean up or close down.
“We’re basically going to regulate them out of business,” she said at the news conference.
Staff writer Christine Stapleton contributed to this story.