Recent reportage, such as Anne Fletcher’s book, Inside Rehab, has documented the mediocre application of vague and questionable procedures in many of the nation’s addiction rehab centers. You would not think the addiction treatment industry had much polish left to lose, but now comes a devastating analysis of a treatment industry at “an ethics crossroads,” according to Alison Knopf’s 3-part series in Addiction Professional. Knopf deconstructs the problems inherent in America’s uniquely problematic for-profit treatment industry, and documents a variety of abuses. We are not talking about Medicaid, Medicare, or Block Grants here. Private sector dollars, Knopf reaffirms, do not “guarantee that the treatment is evidence-based, worth the money, and likely to produce a good outcome.” Even Hazelden, it turns out, is prepared to offer you “ equine therapy ,” otherwise known as horseback riding.
Knopf, who is editor of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Weekly, was specifically looking at private programs, paid for by insurance companies or by patients themselves. Who is in charge of enforcing specific standards of business practice when it comes to private drug and alcohol rehabs? Does the federal government have some manner of regulatory control? According to a physician with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the feds rely on the states to do the regulating. And according to state officials, the states look to the federal agencies for regulatory guidance.
All too often, the states routinely license but do not effectively monitor treatment facilities, or give useful consumer advice. Florida state officials do not even know, with any certainty, exactly how many treatment centers are in operation statewide. And even if state monitoring programs were effective and aggressively applied, “just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical,” said the SAMHSA official.
“We see this as a pivotal time for the treatment field as we have come to know it,” said Gary Enos, editor of Addiction Professional, in an email exchange with Addiction Inbox. Enos said that “the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will move addiction treatment more into the mainstream of healthcare, and this will mean that treatment centers' referral and insurance practices will come under more scrutiny than ever before.”
Among the questionable practices documented by Knopf
—Paying bounties and giving gifts to interventionists in return for client referrals.
Under Medicare, paying interventionists for referrals is banned. “In the private sector,” says a California treatment official, “it’s not illegal. But it is unethical.” According to treatment lobbyist Carol McDaid, “kickbacks happen all the time. Treatment centers that are doing this will do so at their own peril in the future,” she told Knopf.
—Giving assurances that treatment will be covered by insurance even though only a portion of the cost is likely to be covered.
Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), says the SAMHSA official, “We are trying to position people to know more about their benefit package. And the industry has to be more straightforward about what the package will cover.” John Schwarzlose, CEO of the Betty Ford Center, told Knopf that “it’s very hard for ethical treatment providers to compete against insurance bait-and-switch,” when patients are told their insurance is good—but aren’t told that the coverage ends after 7 days, or that the daily maximum payout doesn’t meet the daily facility charges.
—Billing patients directly for proprietary nutrient supplements, brain scans, and other unproven treatment modalities.
“Equine therapy, Jacuzzi therapy, those are nice things, and maybe they help with the process of engagement,” said one therapist. “But people need to recognize that these ancillaries aren’t the essence of getting sober.”
—Engaging in dubious Internet marketing schemes.
You see them on the Internet: dozens and dozens of addiction and rehab referral sites. They list private services in various states, and look, on the surface, like legitimate information resources for people in need. As the owner of a blog about drugs and addiction, I hear from them constantly, asking me for links. “Family members and patients frequently have no way of knowing that a treatment program was really a call center they got to by Googling ‘rehab,’ writes Knopf, “and that the call center gets paid for referring patients to the actual treatment center. They don’t know that a program that promises to ‘work with’ health insurance knows full well the insurance will cover only a few days at the facility, and the rest will have to be paid out of pocket.” She points to a 2011 Wired magazine article, which said the Internet marketing cost of key words like “rehab” and “recovery” can be stratospheric. But “by spending that money—not necessarily providing good service—treatment provides can come out on top on searches. It’s the new marketing to the desperate.”
The group with the most to lose from revelations of this nature is the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP), the association representing both private and non-profit rehab programs. The Betty Ford Center has discontinued its membership in NAATP, a move that reflects the turmoil of the industry today. “It’s crazy that we have treatment centers inviting interventionists and other referents on a cruise, and then giving everyone an iPad,” Schwarzlose said.
As one man who lost his son to an overdose said: “I don’t get it. There’s the American Cancer Society, but I look for drugs and alcohol and I can’t find anything. There’s no National Association for Addictive Disease. How can this be?”
The investigative series will be featured in Addiction Professional’s March/April print issue. Enos believes that “influential treatment leaders are more interested than ever to see this debate aired more publically,” and says that the online publication of Knopf’s articles for the magazine has sparked “a great deal of discussion in treatment centers and on social media, including comments about other questionable practices that harm the field’s reputation.”