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As targeted Fla. sober home closes, attention shifts to legislation, regulation

October 22, 2014
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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A South Florida sober home that was the target of a high-profile raid by federal and state authorities last month has shut operations, and prospects for similar enforcement actions in the near future have leaders in the recovery residence community optimistic about 2015 state legislation to help weed out unscrupulous providers of recovery housing and substance use treatment services.

At the same time, however, some political leaders representing South Florida see a different opportunity, hoping the attention that unethical providers have garnered will convince federal authorities that local governments need more ability to control the growth of sober residences in their communities.

The focus on South Florida's burgeoning recovery residence community sharpened last month when records were seized from the West Palm Beach offices of Good Decisions Sober Living, in a raid in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) accompanied state and local officials. An investigation being coordinated by Florida's insurance fraud division has expanded to target both recovery residence operators and addiction treatment facilities.

Good Decisions, which reportedly was drug testing residents four times a week and billing insurance for around $1,500 per test, closed its doors this month. John Lehman, president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR) and a leader in the effort to hold the recovery residence community to national standards of operation, had called Good Decisions the top violator of ethical standards among Palm Beach County's sober home operators.

Lehman says around three dozen residents had to relocate at the time Good Decisions closed. FARR helped to place some of the individuals in higher-quality residences, while others simply moved to other homes that generally lure residents with offers of free rent and amenities for the purpose of capturing more insurance billing opportunities, he says.

Lehman fully expects more raids on South Florida providers to occur. “I'm absolutely certain it will be soon—I just don't have a definition for when 'soon' is,” he says.

Longer-term outcome

Florida's state legislative session in 2014 featured the introduction of legislation that would have established a voluntary certification process for recovery residences and a requirement that state-licensed addiction treatment centers refer their departing patients only to certified homes. The legislation cleared the House but failed to make it to the Senate floor. But Lehman believes that actions now occurring in the enforcement arena and behind the scenes among providers will set the stage for 2015 legislation that can eliminate unethical providers while not interfering with fair housing protections that allow high-quality providers to locate in neighborhoods.

Lehman says the legislation should clearly define the parameters of a recovery residence, along the lines of the model of the four distinct levels of recovery support advanced by the National Association of Recovery Residences (NARR). It also should explicitly define regulatory requirements that apply to entities operating both recovery housing and clinical services, he says, ensuring that programs will not have an avenue to offer long-term free housing as an inducement to enroll someone in billable treatment.

“Legitimate providers of recovery housing can't compete with free,” says Lehman, who is working with leaders of the state treatment provider association on potential legislative language. “The bad guys are profiting, and the good guys are closing their doors.”

Yet amid this activity, municipal leaders in South Florida have been meeting with some of their representatives in Congress with the hope of asserting more control over recovery home operations. A communication this month from the office of U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel stated that she recently met with the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). “Assistant Secretary [Gustavo] Velasquez was receptive to Congresswoman Frankel's comments on the proliferation of sober homes in South Florida and pledged to follow up with detailed answers to her questions,” the communication states.

Frankel is involved in efforts to “provide South Florida's cities with greater regulatory clarity” regarding sober homes, the communication reads. But whether that would end up translating to any weakening of Fair Housing Act protections for recovery residences remains open to speculation.

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