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Addiction Treatment is not always “treatment”

The addiction crisis worsens with no end in sight.  As drug companies continue to release new medications, addicts continue to find new ways to abuse them.  Alcohol is still one of the most deadly substances and new, terrifying synthetic drugs hit the market each year.  The media overwhelms us with stories of car accidents, overdose and death.  But in the shadows, beyond the scope of media attention, greed and malice lurk behind the title of “addiction professional,” selling the addict to make a buck.  They have crept into nearly every major city, taking advantage of helpless individuals.  These people are working with addiction treatment centers, intensive outpatients, sober homes and more.  They sit back and wait for the next addict to fall (and sometimes even give them a push), so they can quickly throw them into the treatment cycle again and again.  Why? Money.

As someone who has worked in the mental health field for 13 years and currently owner of Surfside Structured Sober Living in New Jersey, it is hard to believe some of the stories are true. To some extent I have dedicated my life to helping addicts and families. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that money can be as intoxicating as alcohol or cocaine and some are more focused on the mighty dollar.

I recently met a young man, 26 years old, who just moved back to New Jersey.  “Jeff” was in a few rehabs in South Florida and, against the suggestions of a few trusted men in his network, he began working in a “call center” at 8 months sober, while still living in a sober house.  This is his story.

Jeff struggled with addiction for years and used pills to excess.  He went to a detox in New Jersey and was shipped to a program in Florida for treatment.  Before his flight, he and his family were promised that treatment would be covered by insurance.  He arrived and soon began a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), which provided him with free sober living and bussed him to his PHP the affiliated office 5 days per week.

On a few occasions, Jeff was told that his urine screen tested positive and, although he was never shown the positive results, this extended his time in PHP.  He eventually stepped down to an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP).  After a short period of time in IOP, he was called to the office and told he had an outstanding bill for $70,000 that his insurance would not cover.  He was told that despite this massive debt, they would not take him to collections but would charge the insurance company, hoping to get paid as much as possible.  These conversations were confusing and alarming, and left Jeff with a sense of financial fear.

As Jeff’s insurance almost ran dry, he was kicked out of the program and tossed onto the street like a dog.  He was told that his drug test came back dirty and if he wanted a place to live, he could go to detox.  Jeff was adamant that he didn’t use and certainly didn’t need detox.  Two hours passed before Jeff was contacted by an “Alumni Coordinator.”  This was a young guy who said they found beds in a sober house that he could go to.  Jeff refused, saying that he sensed something bizarre — in retelling his story, Jeff exasperatedly said, “These programs were always kicking people out, people who came from a long distance and had nowhere to go but the street.”

Desperate, Jeff went to another program and after it’s completion, moved to a sober house.  Here, he started working at the call center around 8 months sober.  His job was to answer calls, check insurance and get people to commit to residential.  He was paid $10 an hour plus commission — commission on bodies.  He received $100 if the person stayed in detox for 24 hours and $200 if they went to residential treatment.  If he got 10 people a month, he received an additional bonus.

Jeff admitted that the money quickly motivated him to participate in shady behavior.  The call center was linked to one treatment center, but people were under the impression they were calling a different program.  The website for the call center claimed they would get you into the best treatment center for your needs, but there was really only one center to go to.  “They make you feel special and like you care about recovery.”  Jeff reports that other people would tell prospective clients what drugs to take to ensure a stay in detox.

Unfortunately, Jeff was an addict.  Without drugs to mask his conscience, the lies he was telling other addicts and their desperate families left him with an unbearable guilt.  He began to use again, claiming that “the drugs made me not feel or care.”  He said they would spoon feed information to addicts to get them into treatment so the rehabs could bill tremendous amounts of money.  “Addicts are just dollar signs to people down there.”  He said one of the most horrifying aspects of the scheme is that everyone is in “recovery.”  Most of the disturbing “buying and selling” of addicts are people in early recovery working for other people in recovery.

Jeff knows there are excellent programs in Florida, but it’s nearly impossible to tell.  Roaming around AA and NA meetings are the Alumni Coordinators, also known as “brokers” or “head hunters.”  They have phone numbers in books and track people in treatment.  They can get upwards of $500 for a “marketing fee” per person.  Some addicts have made a career of going in and out of treatment, mostly on their parents insurance.  They get out of a program and have a “broker” give them drugs.  The broker then gets them into treatment and splits the referral fee with them, making the deal financially beneficial to both the user and the broker.

Jeff talked openly about the different programs he saw, including programs that sit people in front of the TV all day, loading them up on benzos and suboxone to keep them comfortable.  He said you could tell almost immediately that a program was up to no good if the owner had a string of sober houses, owned an IOP and a lab.  Many labs would try to charge $1500-$2000 per day for urine drug tests, which can be easily purchased for $25 or less per test.  But when an addict speaks out about the corrupt scheme, people quickly claim they’re “just a junkie,” using the stigma affiliated with addiction to suggest that this person is nothing more than a liar with bad motives.  How quickly the market claiming to help addicts turns on them.

This racket emerged when people started to recognize that addiction is a business where huge amounts of money can be made, and ethical providers are fed up.  We are watching addicts be bought and sold, sent to places that are not clinically appropriate and traded like it’s some sort of black market.