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Inaction on sober homes in Fla. may set stage for legislation in 2015

May 6, 2014
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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A Florida legislative session that unfolded against the backdrop of local government unrest over recovery residences essentially ended where it began for the recovery homes, as House-adopted legislation providing for voluntary certification of the residences failed to advance to the state Senate floor before the legislature's adjournment this month.

But the president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR), a membership organization that has become a prominent advocate for standards of operation for a burgeoning and mostly unregulated industry, believes recent developments bode well for legislation in 2015 that will preserve sober homes' inherent right to operate while also better protecting persons in early recovery and their families.

John Lehman believes that if FARR successfully reaches out to municipal leaders in the coming months, “By the time we reach this place next year, and we will next year, we'll have legislation that has been vetted by all parties.”

One likely component of anticipated legislation would place significant responsibility on Florida's primary treatment centers for helping to distinguish high-quality, safe recovery residences from those that appear to function mainly as sites from which to bill insurance for excessive drug testing and/or questionable outpatient treatment. Examples of both types of homes abound in places such as Delray Beach in Palm Beach County, a community that Lehman calls the “epicenter” of the recovery residence movement. Both pieces of legislation that were introduced this year, House Bill 479 and Senate Bill 582, would have required the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) to prohibit state-licensed addiction treatment agencies from referring patients leaving primary treatment to non-certified recovery homes.

One clear reason why this subject likely will remain part of Florida's legislative agenda involves municipal leaders' continuing tendency to point a finger at sober homes and blame their operators for local increases in crime and decreases in property values. This remains the case even though in many communities leaders don't even know precisely where the homes are located because their uses are protected under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Bills' progress

House Bill 479 called for a voluntary certification process for recovery residences that was designed to be self-supporting through fees paid by participating homes. Some municipal leaders have pushed instead for a mandatory registration process for all sober residences, fearing that a voluntary system would do nothing to eliminate unscrupulous operators from the industry. This became the approach suggested in Senate Bill 582, which did not emerge out of the Senate Appropriations Committee this year.

“Setting aside the Fair Housing Act for a moment, we have no fear of registration,” says Lehman. “What we have fear of is public access to the information. My first concern is that as soon as forced registration information was made available, a 'NIMBY' group would surface and force politicians to take actions that are not legal.”

Lehman believes a voluntary self-regulatory process through certification can work if it also includes a provider mandate to refer only to certified programs. FARR already has certified more than two dozen recovery residences in the state and has another 30 or so certifications pending.

Because this year's Senate bill took a mandatory rather than voluntary approach, it also came with a hefty price tag: an estimated $7 million. That figure ultimately proved too steep for Senate leaders, and that contributed to the bill's demise in this year's session. Because the bill never made it to the Senate floor, there never arose a chance to brig it in line with what the full House had passed, thus meaning no legislation on recovery homes would emerge this year.

The Senate bill had projected staffing and equipment costs necessary to inspect an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 recovery homes across Florida. Lehman thinks the number of existing residences is actually closer to 1,500, though it is impossible to calculate the number precisely at this point.

Lehman credits a handful of treatment facilities in Florida, including Caron Renaissance, with creating more momentum toward voluntary certification in recent months by routinely asking recovery home operators whether their homes are FARR-certified—and indicating that they want to refer only to certified residences.

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