Rubio: Feds should consider Palm Beach County sober home fixes

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Federal officials raid a sober home at 1501 N. Federal Hwy., Lake Worth, on Dec. 21, 2016. Officials charged owner Kenny Chatman and five others with health-care fraud in an ongoing crackdown on sober homes in Palm Beach County. Chatman has been the subject of Palm Beach Post investigative stories detailing fraud in the sober home industry. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)

Local prosecutors hoped that state regulators would consider a Palm Beach County grand jury’s recommendations on fixing the crime-plagued sober home industry.

Now, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, wants the federal government to see whether the grand jury report should change laws across the country.

Rubio on Thursday asked the comptroller general of the United States to assess whether the Palm Beach County recommendations should have a role in the Government Accountability Office’s review of federal and state oversight of sober homes.

Rubio wrote:

“Abuse and fraud in the addiction treatment industry has exploded in concurrence with the opioid epidemic that has swept our nation. Treatment services are crucial for getting those suffering from substance use disorder on the path to recovery. The Palm Beach Grand Jury report provides valuable insight to one of the states hit hardest by this epidemic, and offers ideas on how states can confront the challenges of fraud and abuse in the addiction treatment industry.”

 

The grand jury convened at the request of State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a Palm Beach County Democrat preparing to start his second term. The report, released Dec. 12, outlined 15 changes that would:

  • Crack down on deceptive marketing aimed at vulnerable people
  • Require effective standards for sober homes
  • Help state regulators move quickly and effectively
  • Improve laws against patient brokering and other kickback schemes
  • Rebalance law enforcement and patient privacy laws to help criminal investigations

The report follows a year of stories in The Palm Beach Post detailing fraud in the $1 billion industry, which featured closeup looks at several operators, including Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman, who was arrested Wednesday with his wife and four others in a federal crackdown.

Rubio’s Thursday letter is a follow-up to a request he made in June with U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to evaluate sober homes and their regulations. They said then that “The ongoing opioid epidemic has fueled a high demand for substance abuse services, and it is critical that individuals receive the care they need, and that facilities purporting to help individuals with substance use disorders are actually doing so.”

The Palm Beach Post found that Palm Beach County’s opioid problem has enormous costs. Last year 216 people died in the county of heroin-related overdoses. In a story on what could be done, The Post noted that Rubio missed a critical vote on the most important addiction bill in decades.

In comments to The Post made Friday, Rubio said that “Heroin and opioid addiction is a disease, and when you hear about some sober living homes and recovery providers mistreating and abusing the people they are supposed to be helping, it’s heartbreaking. I believe more must be done to make sure these facilities are acting in good faith and not defrauding taxpayers by taking advantage of people who are desperately seeking help in their fight against the disease of addiction.”

Rubio said the Government Accounting Office study could suggest ways regulations would protect communities and recovering addicts without overly complicating the government’s role.

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