Florida legislators late last week took a firm stand against deceptive and patient-harming marketing and related practices in the addiction treatment and sober living industries. With their adopted legislation giving added authority to state regulators that observers have seen as lax in their past monitoring efforts, state officials will have a prime opportunity to engage in stronger enforcement of patient and family protections.
After it had appeared that comprehensive legislation that had been in the works for months might die in the waning days of the state legislative session, the state Senate on May 4 unanimously passed legislation that had previously cleared the House. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign into law the measure, which will take effect July 1.
Separately, Scott last week also issued an emergency declaration in order to free up federal monies to combat the opioid crisis in Florida.
The bill on the governor’s desk largely implements the recommendations of a grand jury and a sober home task force in Palm Beach County, home to one of the largest concentrations of addiction treatment facilities and recovery residences in the country.
Among its provisions, the bill:
- Prohibits service providers and recovery residence operators from engaging in deceptive marketing and enacts criminal penalties for such conduct;
- Adds patient brokering to the list of offenses that the Office of Statewide Prosecution may pursue; and
- Requires organizations that offer marketing services in the field to be licensed by the state (it will not require licensure of the individual marketers in these organizations, however).
“Client brokering is a form of human trafficking plain and simple. It is not just against the law, it is against the 13th Amendment,” Andrew Burki, founder and CEO of Life of Purpose Treatment in Palm Beach County, says. “This bill makes that point abundantly clear by empowering law enforcement to go after and prosecute the traffickers.”
Added regulatory authority
Sponsored by State Rep. Bill Hager and State Sen. Jeff Clemens, both of Palm Beach County, the legislation (HB 807) creates broader regulatory powers for the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) as it pertains to the treatment and recovery residence communities.
A summary of the bill from attorney Jeffrey Lynne, a member of the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force, states that the measure expands DCF's authority to take action against service providers, in a graduated-sanctions approach similar to how other healthcare providers in Florida are regulated. It also gives the department more leeway to inspect facilities, including on an unannounced basis.
The bill also enacts several changes to treatment facility licensing practices, with a prohibition against the licensing of centers where staff members do not pass background checks. The bill calls for DCF to draft rules on administrative and clinical standards for licensing by next January, and states that licensure fees will increase in order to finance the cost of regulation.
“HB 807 is sweeping in its scope and is groundbreaking in how it responds to those who endeavor 'to perpetuate the slavery of addiction at the expense of those among us who are most in need of our protection,' as stated so eloquently by Delray Beach City Attorney Max Lohman,” Lynne wrote in his summary of the legislation.
“The fact that vulnerable individuals and families have been exploited in their moment of greatest desperation is beyond morally reprehensible,” adds Burki. “We are all collectively looking forward to finally seeing justice brought to those who have preyed upon our most desperate citizens at the expense of the lives of young people, the economy of local communities, the legitimate treatment industry, insurance providers and society as a whole.”
Going after unethical marketing, referral
The measure directly addresses a number of the most prevalent abuses in South Florida's treatment center and recovery home industries. It establishes a $50,000 fine for patient brokering offenses, and it expands on the definition of what can be considered an illegal inducement to influence the referral of a patient.
Under the new law, it will be illegal for any person to knowingly misrepresent the identity, location or services of a licensed provider as part of the effort to lure a prospective patient. This is intended to combat the common practice of using another provider's name or information to divert the patient to a treatment site in Florida.
Those who have advocated a comprehensive regulatory approach for some time are expressing optimism that Florida finally will stem the tide of abuses that have tarnished the state's treatment and recovery communities. This of course will depend on the eventual strength and consistency of the state's effort to enforce the law.
“We are optimistic about the passage of the Practices of Substance Abuse Service Providers Act, which holds unethical providers accountable, serving to prevent further unnecessary and tragic drug-related deaths in Florida,” says Bradley Sorte, executive director of Caron Renaissance and Caron Ocean Drive in Palm Beach County. “However, it’s not enough just to crack down on corrupt establishments. We must also continue to provide comprehensive education to families about what high quality treatment entails to help empower them to seek the best possible care for their loved ones.”
Lynne wrote, “As Florida goes, the rest of the country follows. We are very excited to have been an integral part of this process and are very optimistic that the process of healing can finally occur within a safe space.”