'Body Brokers' Get Kickbacks To Lure People With Addictions To Bad Rehab

Aug 15, 2017
Originally published on August 15, 2017 6:49 pm

About five years ago, Dillon Katz, entered a house in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"I walked in and the guy was sitting at this desk — no shirt on, sweating," Katz says.

The man asked Katz for a smoke.

"So I gave him a couple cigarettes," Katz says. "He went around the house and grabbed a mattress from underneath the house — covered in dirt and leaves and bugs. He dragged it upstairs and threw it on the floor and told me, 'Welcome home.' "

The house was a sober living house or "sober home" — a kind of privately owned halfway house intended to integrate recovering drug and alcohol users back into community life and help them stay on the right path. It was one of the first sober homes Katz lived in. He's been in and out of drug treatment ever since.

Some sober homes are good places. But others see a person who has an addiction as a payday.

Amid the nation's growing opioid crisis, South Florida has become a mecca for drug treatment. And as more people arrive looking for help, there's more opportunity for corruption and insurance fraud. There are millions to be made in billing patients for unnecessary treatment and tests, according to officials investigating the problem.

The first step for unscrupulous rehab centers: Recruiting clients who have good health insurance. That's created a whole new industry — something called patient brokering or "body brokering."

The corrupt owner of a drug treatment center might pay $500 per week in kickbacks to the operators of sober homes who send them clients with health insurance — clients like Dillon Katz.

At her home in Boynton Beach, Fla., Dillon's mom, Staci Katz, pulls out three huge binders where she keeps track of his medical bills. She's tallied up the charges for the five years her 25-year-old son has been in-and-out of treatment: more than $600,000 dollars.

"You could see by the billing — this was very lucrative," Staci says.

There are charges for all kinds of things — nutrition counseling, acupuncture and chiropractic care among them. But the big expenses were for testing — urine testing.

"When they had charged $9,500 for five urinalyses," she says, "I was like, 'Huh! Now I get it.' "

State and federal officials have been cracking down on fraudulent rehab centers.

The Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force has has arrested and charged more than 30 operators of addiction treatment centers and sober homes with body brokering in the past 10 months.

In July, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the arrest of Eric Snyder, the 30-year old owner of a Delray Beach rehab center. Prosecutors say he billed insurance companies for more than $58 million in bogus treatment and tests, and recruited addicts with gift cards, drugs and visits to strip clubs.

Dillon Katz was staying at a sober home across the street when Snyder's place was raided.

Katz alternates between an easy smile and a piercing gaze. He was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at a young age. In high school, he loved acting and music but struggled socially. It was after high school that his drug use escalated — from cocaine to crack to heroin. And his behavior went off the rails.

"I ended up throwing my suitcase out of the window," Katz says. "I was punching the garage. My hands were bloody. I was flipping out."

His mom eventually decided she'd had enough of the chaos.

"I said, 'If you want help, then I will help you,' " Staci remembers. "We had no idea what we were up against."

That's when their drug treatment rollercoaster started. For the next five years, her son went from one treatment center, to another, to another.

"The people my group counseling meetings would offer to help get me into a new place," he says. "But they always asked first, 'What's your insurance like?' "

He's pretty sure now that they were doing it for the money.

Body brokering is a source of frustration for legitimate providers of drug rehab services.

"Kids are literally being bought and sold." says Andrew Burki, founder of Life of Purpose — an addiction treatment center on the Florida Atlantic University campus in Boca Raton. "You want $500? Sell a friend! I mean, that's crazy, right? But that's literally what's happening."

Dillon Katz now lives in Port Saint Lucie in a house he shares two roommates. They hang out on the back patio, smoking Marlboro Menthols and cracking wise.

He's doing well, he says — he's been clean for eight months now and he's a tattoo artist, a job he likes.

After the unsuccessful rehab stays, an arrest and stint in jail ultimately landed him in drug court — that means his incentive for staying off drugs now includes the need to convince a judge that he's clean. Katz says he's found that, for him, the best support is through a recovery fellowship.

"Any kind of spiritual program," Katz says. "That's the answer."

And, he adds, there's no insurance required.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

South Florida has become a mecca for drug treatment amid the opioid crisis. The influx of people seeking help, though, has created opportunities for corruption and insurance fraud. Peter Haden from member station WLRN reports on one illegal industry that's popped up to take advantage of these patients. It's called body brokering.

PETER HADEN, BYLINE: Dillon Katz has been in and out of drug treatment centers and sober living facilities so many times he's lost count. Some were decent. But others...

DILLON KATZ: I walked into there and the guy was sitting at this desk, no shirt on, you know, sweating.

HADEN: The man asked Dillon for a smoke.

D. KATZ: So I gave him a couple cigarettes. He went around the house and grabbed a mattress from underneath the house, which was, like, covered in dirt and leaves and bugs, and dragged it upstairs and threw it on the floor and told me, welcome home.

HADEN: This was a sober home, a kind of halfway house intended to help recovering addicts stay on the right path. But some look at addicts as a payday. A corrupt drug treatment center might pay $500 a week in kickbacks to sober home operators who steer them clients with health insurance, somebody like Dillon Katz. The process is known as body brokering. At her home in Boynton Beach, Dylan's mom, Staci Katz, pulls out three huge binders where she keeps track of his medical bills.

(SOUNDBITE OF BINDER DROPPING)

STACI KATZ: That's just one book.

HADEN: The charges for just one year of drug treatment.

S. KATZ: $391,198.25. You could see by the billing this was very lucrative.

HADEN: There are charges for all kinds of things - nutrition counseling, acupuncture, urine testing.

S. KATZ: When they had charged $9,500 for five urinalyses, I was like, huh, now I get it.

HADEN: State and federal officials are cracking down on fraudulent rehab centers. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced the arrest of 30-year-old Delray Beach rehab owner Eric Snyder. Prosecutors say he billed insurance companies for more than $58 million in bogus treatment and tests and recruited addicts with gift cards and visits to strip clubs.

Dillon Katz was staying at a sober home across the street when Snyder's was raided. He's 25 years old and alternates between an easy smile and a piercing gaze. Dillon was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, an attention deficit disorder, at a young age. In high school, he loved acting and music, but struggled socially. It was after high school that Dillon's drug use escalated from cocaine to crack to heroin. And his behavior was off the rails.

D. KATZ: I ended up throwing my suitcase out of the window. And, you know, walking down the street I was punching the garage. My hands were bloody. I was flipping out.

S. KATZ: It was just chaos. And I said, if you want help, then I will help you. We had no idea what we were up against.

HADEN: That's when their drug treatment rollercoaster started. For the next five years, Dillon went from one treatment center to another to another. He says people in his group counseling meetings would offer to help him get into a new place, always asking first, what's your insurance like? He's pretty sure now they were doing it for the money. Patient brokering is a source of frustration for legitimate drug rehab providers.

ANDREW BURKI: Kids are literally being bought and sold.

HADEN: Andrew Burki is the founder of Life of Purpose, an addiction treatment center on the Florida Atlantic University campus.

BURKI: You want like 500 bucks? Sell a friend (laughter), right? I mean, that's crazy, right? But that's, like, literally what's happening.

HADEN: I'm standing outside a Starbucks in Delray Beach on Atlantic Avenue. That's the main drag here. This patio was known as a place recovering addicts would come and hang out when they were looking for a new place to stay. They'd pile their suitcases up right here on the sidewalk, and then body brokers would swoop in and target the ones with good insurance.

Dillon Katz now lives in Port St. Lucie in a house he shares with two roommates.

D. KATZ: Yeah, this is my sponsor's house. We rent from him.

HADEN: They hang out on the back patio, smoking Marlboro Menthols and cracking wise.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Laughter) But he - everything we talk about with him, like...

HADEN: Dillon is doing well. He's been clean for eight months now, and he has a job as a tattoo artist. And he's getting help through a recovery fellowship.

D. KATZ: Any kind of spiritual program. Those - that's the answer.

HADEN: And he says no insurance required. For NPR News, I'm Peter Haden in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICTUREPLANE SONG, "POST PHYSICAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.