Lawmakers resolve to control rogue rehabs this year
By Teri Sforza and Tony Saavedra
California’s troubled addiction treatment industry may face stricter oversight and a raft of new requirements in 2018, as lawmakers try to protect vulnerable patients and reduce blatant fraud.
After reports of death, sexual assault, drug use and paying-for-patients inside the state’s loosely-regulated treatment centers, the Senate Health Committee on Wednesday called a dozen witnesses to explain the Golden State’s approach to the industry — and map out a plan to to tame the “Wild Wild West.”
“We’re all at fault for allowing this to grow out of control the way it has,” said Albert Senella, president and CEO of Tarzana Treatment Centers in Los Angeles.
The Southern California News Group spent a year probing the addiction industry and found it peppered with financial abuses that bleed untold millions from public and private pockets. Broke addicts are commodities — bought, sold and exploited in an underworld rife with kickbacks, drug use and fraud that bleeds money from insurers’ and private pockets.
It starts with “body brokers” who scour the nation for addicts, then deliver them to the centers that pay the most for clients. Some patients die in “non-medical” detox centers that would not be allowed to open in other states. And many note a revolving door between detox centers, treatment facilities, sober living homes and, often, the streets, a trend that has upended residential neighborhoods and failed to set addicts on a path to sobriety. Well-insured addicts approaching the end of their treatment are often given drugs so they can start the entire billing cycle again.
“Because of the profits and the current minimal fines the (state) is able to collect, there are people running rampant,” said Malibu Councilman Lou La Monte, whose city has a high concentration of addiction treatment centers.
Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, read from the dais a printout of the Southern California News Group’s reports detailing the death of 21-year-old Dillon DeRita. DeRita suffered a fatal heart attack on the patio of Costa Mesa’s Pacific Coast Detox. Video showed rehab workers checking on him, finding him unresponsive and walking away, without calling for medical help or performing CPR.
“That’s outrageous,” Roth said. “That cannot be allowed to continue. Why do we have non-medical detox?”
Another problem is the crop of sober living homes popping up in Southern California’s coastal cities.
Federal law has created a hands-off situation for these homes, which provide a roof and a bed for addicts considered by law to be disabled and, as such, legally protected from certain city ordinances or zoning rules. Addicts, because they are considered disabled, are also guaranteed insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
The cure to the sober living home problem is complex. Speakers appearing before the committee Wednesday said the answer lies not only with the state legislature but with federal lawmakers.
“It’s not an issue that’s going to solved in California,” La Monte said. “It’s going to be solved in Washington.”
The state could take several simple steps to improve care, witnesses said, including:
Requiring a medical exam before an addict enters treatment, to determine which placement is appropriate.
Requiring the state to license and background check addiction counselors. Now, an outside agency “certifies” them.
Making body-brokering — the selling of patients to the highest bidder — a felony so prosecutors are willing to pursue those cases.
Cracking down on false advertising.
One industry expert noted that 32 states require that drug and alcohol counselors be licensed, but California is not among them.
Anne Eowan, senior vice president for the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies, testified that regulators also should keep a closer eye on treatment centers that pay the insurance premiums for addicts.
“Most of these people are unwitting dupes, they don’t even know they are being signed up for insurance,” Eowan said.
The people seeking addiction treatment are often at one of the most vulnerable points of their lives, said Jennifer Kent, director of the Department of Health Care Services, which regulates treatment centers.
“To the extent there is not a consistency of services, that can lead to tragic outcomes and expectations that are not fulfilled. To the extent we can assure people that they get a quality product — I think we owe it to them to assure them that,” Kent said.
Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, has been trying to get rehab-related legislation through the Legislature for years. “Maybe we’ll get somewhere this year,” she said.