In its last session, the Legislature gave funding to State Attorney Dave Aronberg to establish a task force to come up with recommendations on how to clean up the sober home industry.
Today, it’s having its first full meeting, with the goal of driving out bad operators and increasing the quality of care for recovering addicts.
What the group will ultimately recommend to the Legislature is still a mystery, but a smaller meeting of the task force, on Tuesday, laid out what it won’t do. And Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson, which is leading the group, gave it some areas to focus on.
First, what it won’t do:
- Johnson said the task force won’t be looking at zoning requirements for sober homes (federal laws make that illegal).
- It won’t be going after drug addicts or good operators.
- It won’t be focusing on prosecuting bad operators, although Johnson said the State Attorney’s Office is convening a grand jury to look at the overall issue.
“We can’t prosecute ourselves out of this,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We’re going to knock some heads, I presume. We’re not sitting on our hands. We have a lot of tips coming in.”
Today’s meeting is open to the public and will be held from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the community room of the West Palm Beach Police Department at 600 Banyan Blvd.
So far, the task force is looking at tackling four key issues:
Who should regulate the recovery industry?
Nearly everyone agrees that Florida’s Department of Children and Families, which currently oversees drug treatment centers, doesn’t have the resources to do it adequately.
Instead, the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses health care facilities, is widely considered the more appropriate department for the job, and the task force will look at whether transferring the responsibilities is possible.
Sober homes, however, can’t be regulated because of federal housing and disability laws.
But the idea is to get them voluntarily certified by an accrediting agency — in this case, the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, which has strict guidelines and requirements for its members.
But FARR doesn’t have enough funding to certify the thousands of sober homes in the state. So one of the task force members proposed having the members themselves fund the process. Johnson said that could be a good idea.
“If we left this up to DCF to license and register, we’d be little better off than where we are now,” Johnson said. “Sometimes when an industry regulates its own, it can be as effect or more effective than government.”
Clearing up the laws
Much of the task force’s focus is going to be clearing up the laws to make it clear what’s legal and what’s not.
At Tuesday’s meeting, lawyers for sober homes said their clients spend a lot of money on lawyers simply to figure out how to operate within the law.
That’s because the laws are confusing, said Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.
“The providers want clarity. They want to know what’s okay and what’s not okay,” he said.
How should recovering addicts pay for rent at sober homes?
Current patient brokering laws don’t allow medical providers to bribe patients to go to their business or pay for headhunters to lure patients.
That also goes for the drug treatment industry. But patient brokering is considered rampant in the industry, with recovering addicts often enticed to stay at sober homes with offers of free gifts or free rent.
But it’s not really free. In some cases, the addict has to go to a particular outpatient therapy during the day, which charges the person’s insurance. Or the sober home simply wants the addicts in the home so it can make money drug-testing them.
Johnson proposed a radical idea: make it legal for treatment centers to pay for an addicts’ rent at a certified sober home.
That would accomplish two things: good sober homes would automatically have a leg up on the bad actors, because they’d be certified, and bad actors would be encouraged to clean up their act and get certified.
How should sober homes be marketed?
This is another gray area.
Fontaine wanted to know if anything could be done about treatment centers or sober homes that falsely advertise their services or facilities. He said he spoke to one addict’s mother, for example,
And there’s another area of marketing that is a source of concern. Many sober home and treatment center operators will pay people, known as “marketers,” to bring in patients, which is illegal.
But the industry wants that cleared up, too. Attorney Jeffrey Lynne said licensed interventionists are worried about how they can be paid for their work without violating the patient brokering laws.
“That’s what their job is, to do intake and where to place someone,” Lynne said. “Their whole profession has been tainted by this concept of marketing.”