Owner of notorious drug treatment center pleads guilty today

Drug treatment center owner Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy to commit health care fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to recruit persons into sexual acts, a charge that could send him to prison for life.

His wife, Laura Chatman, pleaded guilty to two counts of falsifying and covering up the ownership of the treatment centers. She applied for state licensure for the facilities even though her husband, a felon, was the one owning and operating them. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

Their sentencing will be May 17 at 10 a.m.

Kenneth Chatman walks into Reflections, his treatment center in Margate in December, 2015.

Chatman had been charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy to commit health care fraud. His wife had been charged with conspiracy to commit health care fraud and multiple counts of money laundering.

Chatman owned Reflections Treatment Center in central Broward County and operated sober homes throughout Palm Beach County. The places were notorious drug dens, with up to 90 percent of patients – who were supposed to be getting sober – doing drugs.

Chatman’s ties to prostitution were first exposed by The Palm Beach Post in December, 2015. Nearly a year later, federal authorities arrested him.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Bills urge help for addicts in ERs and prompt RX drug reporting

Pharmacists and doctors who participate in the state’s prescription drug monitoring program would be required to report every prescription they fill for opiates and other controlled substances within 24 hours under a bill introduced on Friday.

HB 557 was filed by Rep. Nicholas Duran, D-Miami. There is no companion bill in the Senate. 

Currently, pharmacists and doctors who participate in the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program have seven days to report controlled substances they dispense.

Although participation in the PDMP is not mandatory, the database improves clinical decision-making and can identify doctor shopping and pill mills.

» Read the Post’s coverage of the opioid epidemic »

Currently, 6,546 pharmacists and doctors input their prescribing data into the PDMP database. Sixty-six percent of participants already report data within 24-hours.

The database contains 37,048,030 prescriptions for 7.3 million Florida residents.

Also on Friday, Republican Sen. Kathleen Passidomo filed SB 558, which would require hospitals to provide additional services to overdose patients. Passidomo, vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Health Policy and Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, represents Collier, Hendry and parts of Lee counties – all hard hit by the opioid epidemic.

The bill mirrors HB 61, filed by Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, which requires hospitals to screen overdose patients to determine the need for additional services and prohibits hospitals from discharging overdose patients to a detox or drug treatment center until the patient is stable.

The bills also require attending physicians to contact the overdose patient’s primary care physician or any other treatment providers who prescribed a controlled substance to the patient.

If the patient is currently in a treatment program, the hospital’s attending physician must also inform the medical director at the treatment center about the overdose.

The bill would also require the hospital to inform an overdose patient’s family or emergency contact about the overdose

 

 

Lawmakers cite Post’s investigation as motive for change

Local lawmakers agreed on Wednesday to cross the aisle and work together on passing legislation to address the opioid crisis and corruption in sober homes.heroin-front-page

During a brief presentation at a meeting of the Palm Beach County Commission and its Legislative Delegation, Democratic Senator Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth urged his colleagues to support a bill soon to be proposed by Republican Rep. Bill Hager of Boca Raton that will address sober home regulation.

Palm Beach County Mayor Paulette Burdick praised the Palm Beach Post for its investigation of corruption in the drug treatment industry and the opioid epidemic.

“We as elected officials work hard in the community and have created task forces but the media, in particular our local Palm Beach Post, has done a wonderful job with presenting the faces of the addiction problem and the health care issues statewide that effect all of us,” Burdick said, referring to a recent article that estimated the cost of the opioid epidemic at Florida hospitals at $1.1 billion.

Spoon sigAssistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron, formerly the county’s top lobbyist, said he has sent “dozens” of articles from the Post’s series to the White House National Office of Drug Control Policy, hoping to show the extent of the problem.

“We really have struggled in Congress to make the case that we are dealing with a crisis,” Bonlarron said. “This really is a priority issue for us.”

Clemens said he will seek money to continue funding the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force, created by Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg. The task force has made 9 arrests and drafted proposed legislation.

Clemens and Hager have led the 4-year-long battle to reign in sober homes and succeeded in passing a bill that prohibits treatment centers from referring patients to sober homes that have not been certified by the Florida Association of Recovery Residences.

The county will also seek more money for the Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network, which is contracted by the Department of Children and Families to oversee drug treatment providers.

 

 

 

First woman arrested in sober home crackdown

BREAKING: Amanda LaFrance, 25, came to Florida three years ago to get clean and found herself in court on Saturday facing 13 counts of brokering other addicts with insurance to Whole Life Recovery, a treatment center in Boynton Beach whose owner and operator faces charges of paying kickbacks for clients.lafrance-mugshot

LaFrance is also the first woman to be charged in the Sober Home Task Force’s crackdown on patient brokering in the sober home business. All eight arrests stem from the business practices Whole Life Recovery.

According to the arrest affidavit, LaFrance deposited $6,750 in 13 checks from Whole Life Recovery for case management services. Deon Hill, her business partner and father of her 6-month-old daughter, deposited a check for $525 from the treatment center.

>> Read more: Addiction Treatment – Inside the gold rush << 

Hill, 50, has not been charged but is currently being held without bond at the Palm Beach County Detention Center on an unrelated armed robbery charge.

LaFrance’s public defender asked that LaFrance be released on her own recognizance or supervised release because she has no criminal history. Her mother, Lorraine Rucki, asked that she be allowed to take her daughter back to New Jersey for treatment or to place her in detox in Palm Beach county.

Assistant State Attorney Justin Chapman argued that LaFrance should be held on the recommended bail:  $39,000 – $3,000 for each of the 13 counts.

“We are dealing with a very vulnerable population,” Chapman said. “They are being herded like cattle basically.”

However, she will remain in jail until she can prove that the money that would be used to post her bail did not come from illegal activities.

LaFrance’s monther, Lorraine Rucki, testified that her daughter relapsed, is homeless, has no job and is already experience withdrawal symptoms in jail.

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who created the task force in July with $275,000 from the legislature, said there will be more arrests.

“The heroin crisis is fueled by bad actors in the treatment industry,” Aronberg said. “Our task force will continue to target sober homes that violate Florida Law and jeopardize their residents safety.”

MORE DETAILS TO FOLLOW.

 

 

Aronberg warns of homeless crisis after sober home crackdown

At a meeting of the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation on Tuesday, State Attorney Dave Aronberg explained how he has spent the $275,000 lawmakers gave him to probe corruption in the drug treatment industry but warned that if the funding is not renewed, proactive efforts to combat corruption will likely end.heroin-front-page

“Our criminal investigations will continue beyond the appropriation,” Aronberg said, adding that the funding will stop on June 30, 2017. “The only difference will be that we will probably be back in a reactive mode as opposed to the task force being able to get in front of this.”

Aronberg did not make a pitch for a specific amount of money. Instead, he asked local lawmakers to watch the actions of the task force. Since its start on July 1, the task force has made seven arrests: two treatment providers and five sober home operators. All have been charged with multiple counts of patient brokering.

The task force has also drafted legislation which it hopes local lawmakers will sponsor and suggested tweaks to existing laws and regulations, Aronberg said.

“You’ve seen stories on all the unnecessary lives lost because of the heroin crisis,” Aronberg said, holding up a copy of the Nov. 20 front page of the Post, which displayed the faces of the 216 people who died of heroin-related overdoses in 2015.

Aronberg’s experience with cracking down on drugs dates back to his tenure as the state’s Drug Czar during the pill mill crisis a decade ago. Aronberg admitted that he knew that closing the pill mills would create a heroin crisis.

“Government doesn’t always do a good job of preventing,” Aronberg said. “It does a better job of reacting.”

However, Aronberg said he wants to be prepared for the by-product of the sober home crackdown: Homelessness.

“Once we shut down a lot of these sober homes, we’re going to have a homeless problem,” Aronberg said. Already, he has begun talks with the county commission about housing for addicts left homeless.

“Keep in mind, this could be the next front in this fight,” Aronberg said.

The Task Force has three units: Law enforcement, secret group that meets monthly to discuss criminal investigations; A proviso group, that has examined existing laws and regulations and will suggest changes; and the Sober Home Task Force, made up of sober home operators, treatment providers and the public.

Aronberg said some of the money went to hire a full-time investigator and criminal analyst. Aronberg has also assigned a prosecutor to work exclusively on corruption.

“I think Palm Beach County is going to be a leader in this effort,” Aronberg said. “We are creating a model that others can follow.”

 

 

 

Surgeon General sent 2.3 million doctors a letter this week. Here’s what it said

In a historic first, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has sent a letter to 2.3 million health care professionals, asking them to lead the movement to turn the tide on the nation’s prescription opioid epidemic.

“We often struggle to balance reducing our patients’ pain with increasing their risk of addiction,” Murthy writes. “But, as clinicians, we have the unique power to help end this epidemic.”

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy
Surgeon General
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

Murthy unveiled his letter-writing campaign in March at the the 2016 Summit on RX Drug Abuse and Heroin in Atlanta. There, speaking with President Obama and other administration officials about the opioid epidemic, Murthy said,  215 million new opioid prescriptions are written every year, “enough to put a bottle of pills in the hands of every adult American.”

Murthy and others at the Summit pointed out that it is physicians who have driven the opioid epidemic with massive numbers of prescriptions.

In the letter mailed this week, Dr. Murthy urges clinicians to visit a website his office launched this month, TurnTheTideRx.org, where they can pledge their commitment to combating opioid misuse by enhancing education for treating pain, screening patients for opioid use disorder, and leading a shift in the public perception of addiction so that it is treated as chronic illness rather than as a moral failing.

This effort builds upon the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Opioid Initiative focused on tackling the nation’s opioid epidemic, as well as the National Pain Strategy, the federal government’s first coordinated plan to reduce the burden of chronic pain in the U.S. Continue reading “Surgeon General sent 2.3 million doctors a letter this week. Here’s what it said”

State Attorney’s sober home task force meeting today

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.”

How many addicts is too many to treat?

Physicians who prescribe buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction will no longer be limited to 100 patients. Under a rule change announced during a White House press conference on Tuesday, the new rule increases from 100 to 275 the number of patients that qualified physicians can treat.

Hypodermic needles mixed with cigarette butts and empty prescription bottles filled garbage bags recovered from a cottage apartment rented by Jean Thomas, 83, in West Palm Beach's Prospect Park neighborhood. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)
(Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

The announcement came as lawmakers today consider the President’s request for $1.1 billion to address the nation’s opioid epidemic, fueled largely by cheap heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl. Opioid overdoses kill 129 people every day in the U.S.

Buprenorphine, also known by the brand names Suboxone and Subutex, is among a handful of drugs that block the high produced by heroin and other opioids, such as Percocet and Oxycodone, and prevent the addict from suffering the painful side-effects of withdrawal.

These drugs – if misused – can produce a high. To prevent “diversion” – using the drugs to get high rather than to wean an addict off opioids – qualified physicians were only allowed to treat 100 patients with the drugs.

Critics claim that medication-assisted treatment with drugs such as buprenorphine still leave addicts dependent on a drug. They question whether a physician can adequately care for 275 addicts at once and fear buprenorphine clinics may become the new pill mills.

Still, providers, policymakers and experts have pointed to the current 100 patient limit as a barrier to treatment. Administration officials estimate the increased limit coupled with the President’s $1.1 billion budget request will enable 70,000 addicts to access treatment next year.

Under the President’s budget proposal, Florida would be eligible for up to $47 million dollars over 2
years to expand access to treatment. However, the final amount the state could receive depends on congressional approval of the budget and the strength of the State’s application and plan to combat the epidemic.

Florida lawmakers have expressed little interest in addressing the state’s heroin epidemic even though the state – especially south Florida – is considered the recovery capital of the U.S. A Palm Beach Post investigation of the county’s drug-treatment industry revealed evidence of patient-brokering, insurance fraud and kickbacks.

This year lawmakers reluctantly approved a bill that would allow researchers at a Miami hospital to operate a needle exchange program and shot down efforts to control unethical marketing practices in the billion-dollar drug treatment industry.

The homepage of the State’s Dept. of Health is devoted to controlling the spread of the Zika virus. Its “Programs and Services” menu makes no mention of addiction services.

Still unresolved is how uninsured addicts who wish to get clean will find in-patient beds during the initial detox procedure – which takes an estimated 7-10 days. Administration officials said Tuesday that grants will enable communities to develop programs to provide such care.

In Palm Beach County, the Drug Abuse Foundation in Delray Beach is the primary provider of in-patient detox beds for addicts who have no insurance and cannot afford to pay for detox. There is often a waiting list for those beds.

 

Feds charge Lake Worth man in overdose death

Federal authorities on Friday charged a Lake Worth man for selling a powerful painkiller that led to another man’s overdose death, the first case of its kind in Palm Beach County despite hundreds of recent overdose deaths.

Christopher Massena (Florida Department of Corrections)
Christopher Massena (Florida Department of Corrections)

Christopher Sharod Massena, 24, was indicted for distribution of fentanyl resulting in death, a charge that carries a 20-year minimum mandatory prison sentence. He was also charged with multiple counts of distributing heroin and heroin laced with fentanyl.

At roughly 100 times more powerful than morphine, fentanyl, a synthetic drug, can be deadly even in small doses, and it’s become common for drug dealers to combine it with heroin.

The effects have been lethal: roughly 200 people died in opioid-related overdoses in Palm Beach County last year, according to Palm Beach Post data. Many of those also had fentanyl in their system.

But while some local police have made a point of arresting dealers for selling heroin, Massena’s is the first case of a dealer being held responsible for an overdose death.

A Friday Justice Department press release hinted that the charge could be a new strategy to stem the growing number of overdose deaths. The FBI is already close to wrapping up a 2-year investigation of some drug treatment centers.

“The DEA is working very closely with our law enforcement partners in Palm Beach County and the United States Attorney’s Office to fully investigate and prosecute illicit drug trafficking activities to ensure that those responsible are held accountable for the consequences of their actions, especially when the sales result in the tragic death of another individual,” DEA Special Agent in Charge A.D. Wright said in a press release.

The press release said that on Feb. 18, Massena distributed fentanyl to a 23-year-old man who died after taking the drug. The man was not identified.

Afterward, Massena sold heroin and heroin laced with fentanyl to an undercover officer four times, according to the release. On April 21, Massena possessed heroin with the intent to distribute it, the release said. Those charges carry a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Local court records show Massena has been arrested several times on violence- and drug-related charges, with stints in Florida prisons from 2011-2012 and 2014-2015.

A message sent to Massena’s lawyer was not returned.

A clock is counting the dead from overdoses

6968
6,968

6,986. 

Moments before a cluster of congressmen began their 9:30 a.m. presentation at the 2016 National RX Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta Wednesday, the grim clock above them stood at 6,970: the number of people dead from an opioid or heroin overdose in the roughly 72 hours since the summit began Monday evening.

When the speakers arrived at the dais, it was 6,970.

6971
Minutes later: 6,971

When they sat down, it was 6,971.

The speakers, including long-time prevention and treatment advocate U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, had some other numbers.

They cited the 23 percent drop in crime in Gloucester, Massachusetts, since the police chief there told addicts who turned themselves in they would not be arrested but would instead get treatment.

There’s the street value of a single bottle of oxycodone: $2,000. And there’s the sevenfold increase in the amount of Mexican heroin coming into the U.S. in just seven years.

When the congressmen began winding up their speeches two hours later, though, the number left behind was this one.

6975