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Rubio asks feds to crack down on Florida sober homes, drug rehabs

by Anna Schecter /  / Updated 

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Sen. Marco Rubio is asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions and two federal agencies to look into "bad actors" at unscrupulous drug treatment centers, citing a series of NBC News reports on kickbacks and deadly overdoses at rehabs in South Florida.

In a letter to Sessions on Tuesday, the Florida Republican asked that the attorney general, "to the fullest extent possible – investigate claims of kickbacks and false statements associated with federal health plans" and private health plans.

He also asked the attorney general to develop a strategy to target disreputable treatment centers and sober homes in Florida "to ensure they are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for the devastation they have caused."

"The possibility of losing a loved one is already frightening enough that those seeking help should not also have to worry about unscrupulous actors posing as legitimate treatment centers."

An NBC News investigation found that young opioid addicts from out of state who sought treatment in South Florida sometimes bounced from one unethical treatment center and "sober home" to another. Sober homes are the residences where addicts live while undergoing rehab at treatment centers.

In his letters to Sessions and the inspectors general of the Labor Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, Rubio referenced NBC News stories in 2017 and 2018 about a number of young women who did not survive the "Florida Shuffle."

"A recent NBC News investigation interviewed the mothers of several women who died from opioid overdoses after they thought they were receiving treatment at a Florida facility. The mothers recounted the victims being shuffled, during a brief period of time, between multiple treatment centers, excessive laboratory tests, and questionable treatments that resulted in insurance companies being billed upwards of $1.2 million.

"Unfortunately, these women did not get the help they needed and ultimately passed away after being 'treated' at fraudulent sober homes, including one called the No Drug Zone."

Rubio also asked the inspectors general at Labor and HHS to look into kickbacks. He asked Labor Department IG Scott Dahl to notify welfare and pension benefit plans that the treatment centers they cover should be verified, and to provide the plans with a list of bona fide treatment centers. He asked HHS IG Daniel Levinson to develop recommendations "to identify and suspend all payments to disreputable treatment centers or sober homes."

There are many reputable rehab facilities in South Florida, but state and federal authorities say broader insurance coverage for addiction treatment and a failure of regulation and oversight created a breeding ground for unscrupulous operators who take advantage of people in distress.

In 2017, former treatment center operator Kenny Chatman was sentenced to 27 years after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud. He also admitted that he gave clients drugs and prostituted women in his program.

In January, Albert Jones, who had operated a sober home called the No Drug Zone, pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to commit health care fraud and maintaining a drug-involved premises — fraud that allegedly cost insurance companies more than $2 million.

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