Online searches to identify an addiction treatment center for oneself or a loved one have presented dangers ever since the Internet became a competitive landscape for facilities. A 2013 Addiction Professional series on organizational ethics in the treatment industry cited Internet marketing scams among the most common unethical practices that fuel calls for ethics reform.
Yet the widespread practice of luring unsuspecting consumers to one facility's website or call center by using the name of an altogether different facility or location has met with relatively little public resistance among treatment leaders—at least compared with other questionable practices such as deceptive insurance claims or paying bounties for referrals. That may be changing, however.
Twice learning in recent months that his facility's name was being used to divert consumers to information about others' nationally prominent treatment chains, Cirque Lodge director Gary Fisher decided he had had enough. Last week he shared his frustration via e-mail with a number of his peers, including leaders at the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) who have debated how aggressively they should work to enforce the association's code of ethics for member treatment centers.
Using the subject line “Same scam” (this summer he had encountered a similar issue that accrued to the benefit of Elements Behavioral Health), Fisher (himself a NAATP board member) wrote that searching for “Cirque Lodge” on Google was resulting in a top entry that when clicked advertised an 800 number, which when dialed connected the caller to American Addiction Centers (AAC), not Cirque Lodge.
“When our person [who placed the call] said he thought they were calling Cirque Lodge, they said, 'No, this is American Addiction Centers, we are much better than Cirque Lodge,'” Fisher wrote in the Oct. 28 e-mail.
AAC, a much-watched organization that last month issued an initial public offering and is reportedly prepared to grow into a billion-dollar brand in the industry, was included on the recipient list for Fisher's e-mail. Fisher directed this comment among his words toward the organization: “Capitalizing on someone else's brand is wrong. I don't think there is any debate about this.”
AAC confirmed last week that it has terminated its relationship with the marketing vendor that it says was responsible for the offending campaign. “We immediately canceled the contract,” says Michael Cartwright, CEO of AAC.
Yet Fisher remains concerned that some of the biggest names in addiction treatment are placing at least some of their Internet marketing efforts in the hands of entities whose tactics should be well-known to all by now, he believes.
“They all want to say they have nothing to do with it,” he says of his peers in treatment administration. “But we all know how these companies harvest beds—there is always some kind of sleight of hand, some bait and switch.”
Fisher wrote in his e-mail to colleagues, “I know you are connected to others, and would believe if it is happening to little Cirque Lodge that it is probably happening to all of you.” This followed the second time since the summer that Cirque Lodge became aware of a marketing effort diverting its potential customers. Fisher said that in the first instance, searches for treatment in Sundance, Utah (home of Cirque Lodge) were resulting in a top listing for The Recovery Place, an Elements Behavioral Health facility in Florida.
Fisher said that issue was traced to the marketing consultant Recovery Brands, which operates facility directory sites such as Rehabs.com. He said Cirque Lodge contacted Recovery Brands' co-founder, Abhilash Patel, who replied that he would fix the problem. But after several weeks had passed with no action taken, Fisher said he went directly to Elements CEO David Sack, M.D., and the problem was ultimately resolved.
More recently, a Google search for Cirque Lodge was generating a highly placed “rehab-review.us” entry that advertised a phone number that would lead callers to a representative for American Addiction Centers. This time Fisher says he decided to respond more quickly, not only contacting AAC but also informing Google of the problem, and the listing was quickly removed. Recovery Brands was not the vendor working on behalf of AAC.
Elements' Sack says in a statement released to Addiction Professional: “Elements, consistent with its fellow NAATP members, is committed to operating with the utmost integrity.” He adds that the NAATP ethics code prohibits members' advertising from including false or deceptive representations as defined under federal law.
“I am confident that any website owned by Elements is operated, in both form and execution, in a manner that provides the customer seeking treatment information a valuable resource to make that very important decision about his/her treatment needs,” says Sack.
Yet recent criticism has pointed to actions that are taken on behalf of treatment organizations by outside contractors. The national newsletter Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly reported this month that Elements (along with Recovery Brands) has been sued in federal court by New Jersey-based Seabrook House for trademark infringement and unfair competition. Seabrook is seeking damages in excess of any profits the two defendants may have earned from allegedly using the Seabrook name online to steer business to Elements facilities.