Drug treatment center doctor who worked for Kenny Chatman will stay out of jail

A doctor who worked for corrupt treatment center operator Kenny Chatman will not be going back to jail – at least for now.

Federal prosecutors wanted Dr. Joaquin Mendez, who is out on $100,000 bond, back behind bars after they argued he violated the terms of his release by treating patients and prescribing opioids.

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

But Mendez’s lawyer, Richard Lubin, argued the terms were vague, and both sides agreed last week simply to amend the terms of his release.

Mendez, a former medical director for Chatman’s corrupt Reflections Treatment Center, is the only one of eight defendants not to have taken a plea deal for their involvement with the facility.

The seven others, including Chatman and his wife, Laura, were sentenced to a combined 58 years in prison.

Mendez has been charged with money laundering and conspiracy to commit health care fraud for ordering unnecessary urine drug tests for addicts, according to prosecutors.

One of the terms of his release, added in handwriting to the paperwork, was that he “not use his Medicare number to provide any services.”

Prosecutors said he violated those terms after he treated at least 188 Medicare patients wrote more than 100 prescriptions for controlled substances that included oxycodone, Oxycontin, clonazepam and fentanyl.

Lubin, his lawyer, argued the terms were weirdly vague.

“Not only is this Court and Dr. Mendez left guessing at what it means to ‘treat patients using his Medicare number,’ it is entirely unclear what the Government means by ‘Medicare number,'” Lubin wrote.

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Apparently the ‘Medicare number’ prosecutors referenced was Mendez’s Provider Transaction Access Number, which Lubin said had “absolutely nothing to do with” Medicare claims.

On Thursday, both sides agreed to changing the terms of release.

Mendez is one of two doctors in charge of overseeing patient care at Chatman’s facilities to be arrested. Last Week, Dr. Donald Willems was sentenced to 10 years in prison – the maximum sentence – after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud.

Chatman was sentenced to 27 years in prison last month after admitting to turning his female patients into prostitutes and pimping them out online.

Adviser for notorious treatment center sentenced to nearly 5 years in prison

A former clinical director at the notorious drug rehab center run by Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman was sentenced to four years and nine months in federal prison today.

Barry Gregory was responsible for overseeing patients’ treatment plans at Chatman’s Reflections Treatment Center. But he largely turned a blind eye to problems there; he admitted in February to signing orders for patients to take urine and saliva tests that weren’t necessary, and he ordered DNA and allergy tests regardless of whether patients complained of allergies.

Dr. Barry Gregory, former clinical director for Reflections Treatment Center

He also said that as many as 90 percent of Reflections’ patients were actively using drugs.

Gregory pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud and knowingly falsifying a matter involving health care programs.

He joins six other people, including Chatman’s wife, who have pleaded guilty to various federal crimes related to Chatman’s drug treatment centers.

Chatman, first exposed in a 2015 Palm Beach Post story, created Reflections in a central Broward County strip mall in 2013. In Palm Beach County, he ran a series of sober homes that were notorious drug dens. He admitted last month to turning some of his female patients into prostitutes, pimping them out on websites like Craigslist and Backpage.

Chatman built Reflections into a multi-million dollar treatment center, and Gregory, a licensed mental health counselor, was instrumental in making that happen.

Chatman hired him in July 2015 to a position where Gregory would oversee addicts’ treatment and counseling. But Chatman was the one who dictated which patients were admitted and how they were treated, Gregory admitted.

When he was hired, Reflections was still on probation with the Department of Children and Family Services. Gregory was the one who filled out the forms to get Reflections fully licensed. To do so, he helped hide the business under Chatman’s wife’s name; because Chatman was a felon, he couldn’t legally own or operate a treatment center.

When Chatman wanted to open up a second treatment center, Journey to Recovery, in Lake Worth, Gregory again helped him fill out the forms, knowing that Chatman, and not Laura, was the real owner of the business.

Federal prosecutors said Gregory has shown remorse for his actions.

“While the defendant has not yet completed his cooperation, he has fully accepted responsibility, recognized his wrongdoing and shown true remorse, and assisted significantly in the investigation,” federal prosecutors wrote in a recent filing.

Chatman and his wife are scheduled to be sentenced May 17. He faces up to life behind bars. His wife, Laura, faces up to 10 years in prison.

 

Addicts to get needles from vending machines in Las Vegas

In an unprecedented approach to curb the spread of diseases and infections caused by sharing needles, health officials in Las Vegas are using vending machines to dispense clean syringes to addicts.

But unlike vending machines that dispense candy and snacks, no money is needed. Addicts participating in the pilot project scan a card and enter a unique ID number in order to vend one of the colorfully gift-wrapped boxes. Each box contains syringes, alcohol wipes, safe-sex supplies and a sharps disposal box.

Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal

People using the new needle exchange vending machines must register through Trac-B Exchange, a storefront harm reduction program aimed to prevent infectious disease. The machines will be available at three locations by the end of May.

Besides providing intravenous drug users with access to sterile needles and disposal of used ones, the program serves as a gateway to services and care that addicts may not access otherwise.

Justin Kunzelman, CEO and co-founder of Rebel Recovery Florida in West Palm Beach, said vending machine needle exchanges are the “most objective and honest,” harm reduction programs because they are unmanned.

Lawmakers worry that by endorsing needle-exchange programs it will appear that they are helping addicts use drugs, Kunzelman said. To avoid that, they impose conditions on needle exchanges that discourage addicts, such as requiring them to provide personal information, get tested for other diseases and receive counseling.

Vending machines don’t ask questions, he added.

“It’s a machine,” Kunzelman said. “It’s not asking you how many times you have been arrested, what’s your sexual orientation – all of the things that come along inherently when the legislature passes acts.”

Nevada is the first U.S. state to launch a vending machine program for clean syringes, but the vending machine model has been in use for several years in Puerto Rico, Europe, and Australia.

In Indiana, after roughly 200 people contracted HIV from sharing needles, Vice President Mike Pence – then the governor – lifted a ban on needle exchanges in 2015 in affected counties.

Still, many communities and states prohibit needle exchange programs even though they are endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Florida, where Dade and Broward counties led the nation in new HIV cases in 2014, the Legislature allowed last year the University of Miami to establish a pilot needle-exchange program.

But lawmakers refused to pay for it. And everywhere else in the state, including Palm Beach County, supplying addicts with clean syringes is a third-degree felony.

With more addicts dying of overdoses than ever before, some policy makers are warming to the idea of needle exchanges and other harm reduction programs that encourage recovery.

When the Palm Beach County Heroin Task Force began meeting in June 2016, Kunzelman’s efforts to discuss needle exchanges ended when he stopped talking. Today, it is among topics discussed.

At its April 4 special meeting on the opioid epidemic, Palm Beach County Mayor Paulette Burdick suggested the county explore a needle exchange program and how the county might pay for it.

Kunzelman and several other harm-reduction advocates met with Palm Beach County Health Department Director Dr. Alina Alonso last week and intend to bring up a needle exchange during the Governor’s 90-minute workshop on the opioid crisis on May 1.

“They’re still getting used to the idea that current policies aren’t working,” Kunzelman said. “I think it will take awhile.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.”

 

 

 

More vigilante justice: Clean addicts protest outside sober house where three overdosed last week

Young recovering addicts – frustrated with the pace of the investigation of shady business practices in the sober home industry – continued their efforts to crack down on what they say are corrupt sober homes by protesting outside a Lake Worth apartment complex where three addicts overdosed last week.FullSizeRender (8)

“It just takes everyone to get together and not rely on original process,” said R. J. Vied, organizer of the protest outside the apartment where his friend died the Friday night. “We’ve been waiting for authorities to shut them down.”

An 8-month-long investigation by The Palm Beach Post found questionable business practices in the county’s $1 billion drug treatment industry including patient brokering, insurance fraud and kickbacks.

Vied advertised the protest on his Facebook page Saturday morning asking for supporters to join him at the complex on South Federal Highway in Lake Worth. About two dozen young supporters showed up and milled around the complex, which includes a two-story apartment building, small motel and pool. Vied said one young woman moved and and the group helped two others find treatment elsewhere.

A resident of the complex declined to comment, saying his friend had overdosed the night before. While standing on the sidewalk in front of the sober home, one protester spotted a small white bag of white power on the sidewalk. FullSizeRender (7)

The owner of the complex did not return a call for comment. The Post is withholding the address pending comment from the owner.

Saturday’s protest is the second effort in a week by young recovering addicts to take on shady business practices in the sober home industry in Palm Beach County. Earlier in the week, an anonymous recovering addict created a Facebook page named Bill Wilson – the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous – to expose what he described as corrupt operators.

Facebook shut down the page after he outed two sober home operators. However, within hours the anonymous addict created another Facebook page with the same purpose. On Friday he exposed two more individuals. The Post is not publishing the name of the new Facebook page for legal reasons.Bill wilson Redacted

Protesters said they are frustrated that law enforcement and state health officials have not shut down any sober homes or arrested owners and operators despite their complaints. In 2014 an FBI task force began investigating the industry and raided two sober homes. However, no charges have been filed.

“Everybody keeps saying there are going to be indictments but nobody has gotten arrested yet,” said Maureen Kielian, the Florida director of Steered Straight. The longer they wait, the more deaths we’re having.”

Vied, who has been clean and sober for 2 years, said he hoped the protest would show the community that addicts can get clean and are concerned about their perception in the community. He vowed to protest outside a sober home every two weeks.

 

 

UPDATED: 15 questions addicts should ask to find a safe halfway house

These 15 questions will help you avoid being the victim of insurance fraud and patient brokering in a halfway house.

Picking a sober home: What to ask

More than two dozen sober home operators have been arrested since October 2016 and charged with accepting and paying kickbacks to enroll insured addicts living in sober homes to specific treatment centers. Asking these 15 questions will help you determine if a sober home is doing business legally and offers the best accommodations for recovery. 

1. Are you certified by the Florida Association of Recovery Residences? FARR certifies sober homes that meet 38 standards for recovery, housing, administration, training, finance and good-neighbor practices. Certified homes can be found at farronline.org.

2. Is the residence coed? Experts agree that newly recovered addicts, especially women, are vulnerable. Dating and relationships in early sobriety can take the focus off recovery.

3.What will happen if I relapse? FARR recommends that sober homes devise individual relapse protocols that include contacts and alternative housing arrangements.

4. Have there been any overdoses or deaths? Is staff trained in CPR?

5. How often do you drug test? Are tests random? What kind of tests? How much do they cost?

Here’s how the fraud works

6. Do you bill insurance? Sober homes are not licensed to offer medical care and cannot bill insurance for services, including rent.

7. How much is rent? How is it paid? What is included in rent? What is the refund policy? Are there rules about pocket change and money transfers? Experts warn insured residents to be leery of free rent, gift cards, cellphones, gym memberships and other inducements if linked to attendance at an intensive outpatient program (IOP) or the provision of urine samples.

8. Do you have an ownership interest or receive referral fees from an intensive outpatient program (IOP) or lab? Such kickbacks, often disguised as “case management fees” are illegal under Florida’s patient brokering law. 

9. Have there been any complaints filed against the sober home or its employees, including code violations?

10. How much training, education and clean time do you require of employees, including house managers?

11. Are properties and vehicles that transport clients insured? Are clients allowed to drive vehicles?

12. Are there 12-step meetings on property? Do you provide transportation to meetings? The grocery store? Is there public transportation within walking distance?

13. What are your policies regarding guests and furloughs?

14. What is your cellphone policy?

15. What is the maximum occupancy? How many to a room? How many bathrooms?

Read more of the Post’s coverage of corruption in the drug treatment industry.

Candle light vigil for victims of drug-overdose on Thursday

Sig2Hundreds of people are expected to attend the 9th Annual National Candle Light Vigil – sponsored by West Palm Beach-based Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) Task Force – on Thursday to honor the estimated 30,000 people who die every year from drug overdoses in the U.S.

According to data gathered as part of the Post’s ongoing series on the substance abuse industry, more than 200 people have died of drug overdoses this year in Palm Beach County.

Michael Botticelli, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, will give the keynote address via video to discuss the importance of drug prevention and education. Dave Aronberg, Palm Beach County State Attorney, will speak about local efforts to fight drug abuse.

At the vigils in more than 55 cities in the U.S. participants will light candles, bow their heads in a moment of silence, and view a memorial wall with more than 300 photos, which represent some of the 100 people who die every day of drug overdoses.

The vigil begins at 7 pm at the Gosman Amphitheatre at the Kravis Center, located at 701 Okeechobee Blvd.