Rep. Judy Chu
Attorney Todd Leishman
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Dave Aronberg, State Attorney for Palm Beach County., Florida (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The Costa Mesa city council voted on changes that would protect sober living home residents from becoming homeless.
An affectionate couple in the back yard on Via Lampara. (Courtesy of Orange County Superior Court case file of Hurwitz et al v. Scolari)
Talega, with Via Lampara in foreground. (Courtesy of Orange County Superior Court case file of Hurwitz et al v. Scolari)
Women waiting for van in front of a house on Via Lampara in San Clemente to take them to substance abuse treatment. (Courtesy of Orange County Superior Court case file of Hurwitz et al v. Scolari)
Van transporting residents with suitcases in front of a house on Via Lampara in San Clemente(Courtesy of Orange County Superior Court case file of Hurwitz et al v. Scolari)
Residents smoking in the yard of a house on Via Lampara in San Clemente. (Courtesy of Orange County Superior Court case file of Hurwitz et al v. Scolari)
People in the yard in the wee hours of the morning on Via Lampara. (Courtesy of Orange County Superior Court case file of Hurwitz et al v. Scolari)
Many residents mean many trash cans on Via Lampara. (Courtesy of Orange County Superior Court case file of Hurwitz et al v. Scolari)
An overview of a sober living home on Via Lampara, San Clemente, and its neighbors. (Courtesy of Orange County Superior Court case file of Hurwitz et al v. Scolari)
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WASHINGTON, D.C. – A day after California took its first firm legislative steps to reign in an out-of-control addiction treatment industry – and three days after prosecutors in Orange County charged 11 people in a $6 million rehab-related scam – Congress took on the next piece of the puzzle:
How to reconcile laws that protect the disabled with the need to ensure that sober living homes arent dangerous flophouses?
“In the worst cases, bad actors dont encourage recovery at all, but exploit vulnerable individuals in order to collect insurance payments,” U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park, told the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee at a hearing on sober living homes on Friday. “This can mean life or death.”
Chu pointed to reports of sober living home operators who force recovering addicts to undergo unnecessary tests and even to use drugs again, so those addicts can re-enter treatment and operators can collect even more insurance money.
“In our city, we have houses with multiple overdoses and deaths, and all we can do is send our firefighters in to pick up the pieces,” Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Erik Peterson told the committee. “In an attempt to help or be compassionate, we have further placed the burden on our communities, and left thousands of people who need help at risk.”
Sober homes – also called “recovery residences” – offer a place to stay for those who have finished formal addiction treatment and are trying to rebuild their lives.
Unlike rehabs, theyre not licensed, inspected, or systematically tracked by any government agency. And because recovering addicts are considered disabled under federal law, sober homes cant be subject to any more requirements than youd put on a family living in the same dwelling.
Attempts to regulate sober houses – and ensure quality – have been decried by the rehab industry as discrimination against the disabled. Operators take cities to federal court, and often win.
As a result, sober homes have proliferated throughout Southern California – often cramming as many as 14 people in the fragile stages of early recovery into one single-family home. New residents can cycle through every few days or few weeks – and eighbors say that living next to one can be a living hell.
“Theyre not actually homes, but businesses that operate out of single-family homes in residential neighborhoods,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach. “There are no standards nor criminal background checks on those who can operate such a business, and a significant number are run by unscrupulous owners and operators who willfully disregard the well-being of the addicts they are supposedly saving, while simultaneously reducing the quality of life in the community.
“Under normal circumstances, this problem would be addressed by local governments. But in this case, federal law shields the bad actors with the protections meant for their clients,” Rohrabacher said. “Crooked owners and operators laugh all the way to the bank.”
Both Chu and Rohrabacher have introduced bills to address the problems.
Chus bi-partisan bill, the Ensuring Access to Quality Sober Living Act, was favored by those testifying at the hearing. It would have the feds draw up standards for sober living homes, and then help the states implement those standards.
Shed like to see a system developed so the public can evaluate the quality of sober living homes. Shed like written contracts for residents with all fees and charges explained up front, trained staff on site, guarantees that people cont be turned away because they take medication to manage addiction, and naloxone – a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses – on hand for emergencies.
Rohrabachers bill, the Restoring Community Oversight of Sober Living Homes Act, would clarify that city and county governments have the power to decide where sober living homes can operate, and if theyre allowed at all. It also would remove substance abuse treatment from the list of essential health benefits that must be covered by insurance.
This, Rohrabacher said, would remove the unintended incentive to encourage patients to relapse in order to cash in on insurance coverage.
Turn my stomach
Todd Leishman, an attorney with Best Best & Krieger in Irvine who advises cities battling on the sober living home front, has seen too much.
“The examples turn my stomach,” he said. “Operators selling drugs to residents. Trading drugs for sex. Rapes. Resident and house manager overdoses. And that doesnt get into the human trafficking and and fraud that are so so common.
“Local governments are in the best position to address these abuses,” Leishman said. “Congress needs to confirm that local government may reasonably regulate recovery businesses to protect the people they serve. Please make it plain that permissible regulation includes maximum occupancy limits, minimum separation requirements, and minimal operational standards.”
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg has led a crackdown in Florida that has had the unintended effect of pushing many unscrupulous rehab operators into states with weaker laws – especially California, he said.
“We cant fix this alone at state the and local levels,” Aronberg said. “We need the federal government to act.”
If Congress doesnt act, the witnesses said, the price is high.
“More people will relapse in the facilities that are supposed to help them,” said Leishman. “More residents will be trafficked, abused and raped. More will overdose and more will die. I wish this were hyperbole but its not.
“Its all happening, in large part because federal law leaves open a radical, and I think perverse, interpretation that insists that local governments may not regulate recovery operators at all – even when its to protect people in recovery.”