Editorial: Sober home bills offer best chance to curtail bad actors

Editorial: Sober home bills offer best chance to curtail bad actors

As seen on the Palm Beach Post:

There’s solid evidence that well-run sober homes can help recovering addicts and alcoholics successfully reclaim a healthy, productive life.

But the key words are “well-run.” Unfortunately, as recent FBI raids in Palm Beach County suggest, the unregulated sober home industry has become a sinkhole for fraud, exploitation and crime. In the past five years, accounts of illegal patient brokering, insurance fraud, drug-dealing, sexual abuse and financial exploitation have accelerated.Consumer safeguards and real regulation are past due.

We’re hopeful that the sober home legislation championed by Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, and Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, will succeed in its goals of protecting the vulnerable and increasing neighborhood safety. There’s reason to believe it will help.

But federal clarity is still needed.

This will be the state legislators’ third attempt to pass a sober home bill. Past attempts have failed on the grounds that sober housing was a federal issue. To succeed this time, legislators have worked hard to square their policy goals with federal housing laws that elevate addiction to a disability.

Hager said he thinks they’ve succeeded, and in the process have gained the support of both sober home industry leaders, and, it appears, their colleagues in the Legislature.

“Each year we have gone at this, we have gotten better and more careful with the language,” Hager said. “Many of the industry’s recommendations have found their way into this bill.”

John Lehman, president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR), agrees.

“We all want to see Florida recapture its previous reputation for excellence,” Lehman said. “We are pushing back against the predators who have invaded our space.”

House Bill 21 and Senate Bill 326 put the state Department of Children and Families in charge of a voluntary certification program, which is to be run by a private credentialing service, possibly FARR.

The fact that it’s voluntary is what should enable the law to pass legal challenges, Hager noted. At the same time, there’s a huge incentive for sober homes to get certified, because the bills also require state-licensed substance abuse providers to refer their patients only to these voluntarily certified homes.

“We think it’s going to deal with about 85 percent of the homes,” Hager said. “Second, we think the marketplace will bring heat to uncertified homes.”

Administrators will need background checks, training and certification. The homes themselves will face annual inspection. They’ll have to show proof of insurance; proof of inspections for fire, safety and health; written house rules, and policies and procedures for intake, relapses and evictions.

Most important, to be certified, owners, directors and CFOs will have to pass a Level 2 background screening check. If they can’t pass it, perhaps because of past DUIs or drug charges, they will have to seek special exemption from DCF. Also important: Sex offenders will not be able to own or manage a certified recovery residence.

“These bad guys? They are really bad,” Lehman said. “They make lots of money very quickly. They are incredibly visible and they operate with seeming impunity.”

It’s clear this is a growth industry, especially for Florida. An estimated 23.5 million Americans meet the criteria for treatment, and new federal parity and insurance rules require that drug and alcohol treatment be covered. Frequently, insurers cover only outpatient treatment, meaning they are inextricably connected to sober housing.

But does that transient sober housing have to be in residential single-family-home neighborhoods? Do neighborhoods concentrated with these industries have to shoulder alone the costly dysfunction brought by those who fail in treatment — the homelessness, petty crime and drug use?

Those are issues that only federal officials can address. So far, the Obama administration has been silent, and Congress hasn’t acted. The passage of the Hager and Clemens’ bills are a start. But there’s more to be done.

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Bill Hager for State Representative