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Deceptive marketing looms large in drug-treatment industry, grand-jury report finds

By Rebecca Campbell | Feb 20, 2017

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A grand-jury report has found that deceptive marketing and admissions personnel are more interested in selling treatment to drug addicts rather than providing help.

The grand jury — which was arranged by Dave Aronberg, state attorney for the 15th Judicial Circuit of Florida, and met for three months, according to a Sun-Sentinel article — was believed to be the first of its kind in Florida to examine the abuses in the drug-treatment industry. After considering the state’s billion-dollar substance-abuse treatment industry, the grand jury’s 44-page report found it is plagued by “deceptive marketing, insurance fraud and patient brokering.” The report offered recommendations on how to improve it.

The report, which was released on Dec. 8, 2016, mentions deceptive marketing as a normal practice that threatens to harm the reputation of good treatment providers as it exploits a vulnerable class. It found that the Department of Children and Families, the state agency charged with overseeing the industry is “grossly understaffed and underfunded.”

According to the Sun Sentinel, Aronberg said in an interview that marketers are deceiving those who need genuine treatment for their addiction.

“We’re seeing this all over the place, where people look to marketers for help in finding a treatment facility, and instead they get steered to some place where the marketer has a financial incentive, a place that looks nothing like the picture or description,” he said in the article.

Justin Kunzelman, director of business development for Ebb Tide Treatment Center in Palm Beach Gardens, is a member of a county task force that works on solutions to regulate the industry. As someone who has been in recovery for eight years, he stated that the substance-abuse treatment sector works differently to regular patient-doctor check-ups, according to the Sun Sentinel.

He said that the substance-abuse industry has moved from marketing to patients through word-of-mouth recommendations to what is known as a pay-for-patient style type of marketing, which makes it unfair for consumers who are vulnerable and credible businesses.

Also, according to the grand-jury report, there are companies that deliberately misrepresent their actual locations and services, simply to attract people. The report claimed they do this using misleading banner ads, which claim that treatment providers are within a city, only to then send calls to call centers and different treatment providers across the country.

The report revealed that some drug-treatment providers would pay marketers to route calls to their admissions lines while callers could be persuaded into a more intensive and expensive level of care than they would need.

To improve the industry, Kunzelman wants legislation to make training and certification for admissions personnel required to improve standards and caller confidence.

A separate Sun Sentinel report said that while sober homes provide excellent care, many unregulated homes “have become unsafe and overcrowded ‘flophouses’ where crimes like rape, theft, human trafficking, prostitution and illegal drug use are commonplace.”

To tackle the issue, Aronberg launched a separate sober-homes task force to examine ways to build regulations in the drug treatment industry. The task force started last July after receiving $275,000 in state funding. He also plans to talk to state lawmakers when the legislative session starts in March.

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