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New federal drug rehab bill inspired by "Florida Shuffle"

Law identifies, exposes and punishes bad operators
Posted at 3:07 PM, Jul 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-06 15:07:00-04

WASHINGTON D.C. — Senator Marco Rubio posted on Twitter how he hopes a bill he's sponsoring will put an end to fraud in the residential drug treatment industry.

He and Senator Bill Nelson are jointly sponsoring the "Sober Home Fraud Detection Act", allowing the federal government to regulate residential drug treatment for the first time.

The ABC Action News I-Team has spent months looking into how the serious problem is affecting Florida, from more crimes in neighborhoods to rising health insurance rates.

The problem of insurance fraud and patient abuse is so bad in the Sunshine State that it's been nicknamed "the Florida Shuffle", where patients are lured here for treatment, then going from one treatment center to another until their insurance benefits run out.

Experts say this is creating a perpetual rehab industry.

“I've never been in one of those situations before. I'd never been to a half-way house,” said Machaon Stevens.

He traveled from his home in Maine to a sober home in South St. Petersburg, hoping to get his life back on track.  

But once there, he says he lived in a bedbug-infested house with little support and no rules.

“We were drinking. If I wasn't, somebody was. There was alcohol in the bedrooms,” he said. 

Stevens finally left, when he realized his experience in a sober home was worse than what led him to seek help.

He is now doing well in recovery in his hometown.

Ads run on the internet and late-night television luring patients to seek residential treatment. 

Centers pay marketers big bucks for recruiting them and sending them to their specific facilities.

“They’re being exploited by the bad actors, who see individuals in recovery not as people, but as commodities,” said Palm Beach County State Attorney David Aronberg.

He convened three grand jury panels in his county, which led to new state laws and dozens of arrests.

Aronberg says patients often end up living in less than ideal conditions, while sober home operators milk their insurance. 

“We've seen too many of these sober homes act as flophouses, where drug use and human trafficking are prevalent,” Aronberg said. “They do more to harm the cause of treatment and rehabilitation than to help it. “

Senators Rubio and Nelson hope Congress will pass a law that will crack down on bad operators.

In the bill, fraudulent operators will be identified by unusual billing, high lengths of patient stay, excessive drug testing and high levels of recidivism.

The information would be made publicly available and could be used by insurance companies or government programs as a basis to refuse payment.

That’s something Stevens says can't come soon enough.

“I believe that they are preying on people in their weakest moments of addiction who actually want help,” he said.

Congressman Gus Bilarakis (R-Pasco County) plans to introduce a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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