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Sober Home Detective: 'The Problem Is Humongous'

Delray Beach Fire Rescue personnel treat a woman who overdosed at a sober living facility on Nov. 18, 2016.
Peter Haden
Delray Beach Fire Rescue personnel treat a woman who overdosed at a sober living facility on Nov. 18, 2016.

Addiction treatment is big business in Palm Beach County.

According to research conducted by the Palm Beach Post, it brings in more than $1 billion a year, making addiction treatment the county’s fourth largest industry – only behind tourism, construction and agriculture.

Not all those in the recovery business have patients’ best interests at heart. A three-month grand jury investigation into the drug treatment sector uncovered evidence of sexual abuse, human trafficking, patient brokering and insurance fraud. The report was released Monday by the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s office.

In recent weeks, the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force has brought charges against eight individuals who run sober homes and treatment centers. WLRN’s Peter Haden sat down with the task force’s lead investigator:  Delray Beach Police Detective Nicole Lucas.

WLRN: Tell us about the recent arrests the law enforcement arm of the task force has made.

Nicole Lucas:Well, we started in July with an investigation into Whole Life Recovery in Boynton Beach. That's an intensive outpatient treatment facility. The people that have a drug addiction problem would go there three days a week for treatment. The sober homes would contract with Whole Life to provide patients. Whenever they would get new kids coming into their sober home, they would send them to Whole Life in exchange for money --  a payment. Then the sober home owners, depending on the contract that they agreed upon, got between $400–$525 dollars per week per person.

The cover story for this is called “case management”. The facility claims that the sober home owner is being paid for case management. So, they're claiming to provide certain services to these people -- like helping them get food stamps, giving them access to computers, taking them to doctor's appointments, taking them to work. Those services were never verified by whole life there was no way to know if they were ever actually provided.

WLRN: Given the larger picture of the recovery industry here in South Florida, how big is the problem of these unscrupulous homes and treatment centers?

NL:The problem is humongous, probably as big as the pain clinics and the pill mills. This seems to be a result of that, because we have a huge number of people addicted to heroin as a result of being over-prescribed medications at that time. So as big as that problem was, this problem is just as big, and there's multiple issues going on.

A lot of the facilities are helping them only because their insurance benefits, so if someone’s insurance benefits run out they can be put out on the street.

When someone asks for help because they have a drug addiction problem, they need to be provided that help, and we shouldn't have to worry about sober homeowners trying to get the females to engage in prostitution. We shouldn't have anybody giving anybody drugs to get them to overdose so that they can put them into detox --  because detox patient referral fees are $1000 a person.

So not only do we have people pretty much ripping off insurance, but we also have people giving people drugs and killing people trying to get them into detox to get a a patient referral fee -- a kickback.

WLRN: And those are examples of things you're aware of or that have gone on?


WLRN: What can families look for if they have a loved one who's in the grip of addiction and they want to get them help, but they don't want to send them to sober home that's involved in a kickback scheme with a recovery center?

NL:If the facility’s offering to do things for free -- plane tickets down here should not be happening. Cigarettes, food, clothes, gift cards -- none of that should be happening. That's one of the big things that people are saying, “Well, the facility sent an airplane ticket. Well, the facility is not allowed to do that. Insurance doesn't pay for that. If it's to a sober home the person should be paying rent or the family should be paying rent. If the person with the addiction is being given anything to go to that place is a red flag that it's a bad place. Nothing's free.

WLRN: What's next for the Palm Beach County sober home task force?

NL: The sober homes task force was given one year, from July 1st 2016 to end of June 2017. So I can't say exactly what's going to happen over the next year but many more arrests are imminent.

For me the root of this, and why I think this is so important, is because those loved ones that are coming down here, facilities are being trusted with their care, and those that ask for help in those families that are sending someone down here for help. That's what the person should be getting -- not taken advantage of.

To report fraud or abuse in the addiction recovery industry, call the Palm Beach County Sober Homes Task Force tip line: 844-324-5463.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.