Mother Jones

HOOKED

How a loosely regulated rehab industry baits recovering drug users into a deadly cycle

THE OFFER WAS TOO GOOD to resist: Go to rehab for a week, get $1,000 in cash. It was early 2017, and Brianne, a 20-year-old from a woody Atlanta suburb, had come to South Florida to leave her heroin addiction behind. At a residential facility called Recovery Villas of the Treasure Coast, she was approached by a charismatic guy I’ll call Daniel, a Pennsylvania native six years her elder. He could relate to her troubles—he’d struggled with addiction himself—and he could get her into another rehab after Recovery Villas. He would even pay her: $1,000 for the first week of her stay and $500 each week thereafter. That money could buy Brianne a whole lot of heroin.

Brianne, whose full name has been withheld to protect her privacy, could be a poster child for the opioid crisis: a blond, green-eyed former softball star who experimented with pills from the medicine cabinet with her high school boyfriend and within a few years was plunging needles into her veins. In 2016, she broke down and admitted to her mom, a software executive named Jen, that she needed help. They made a plan: Brianne would go to treatment for a few months, sober up, and then return home to study at Chattahoochee Technical College.

That never happened. Brianne took Daniel up on his offer and, over the next 18 months, did more than a dozen stints at Florida rehab centers from Palm Beach to Miami. She mainly flitted between Recovery Villas—which in addition to group therapy and 12-step meetings offered apartment housing and a pool—and Compass Detox, which felt like somewhere between a hospital and a hotel.

Sometimes, between stays, Daniel rented a room for Brianne and a handful of other “clients” at a Super 8 or Comfort Inn and supplied them with heroin and the overdose reversal medication Narcan, just in case. When the drugs ran out, Brianne would head into a detox program with dirty urine, an admission requirement for some facilities. Other times, she coordinated directly with rehab staffers who called her “honey” and “sweetie” and arranged free transportation—Ubers, flights if need be—to their centers. Daniel encouraged Brianne to try her hand at recruiting: For every patient she steered his way, he would pay her $400. After she started dating a recovering user who lacked health insurance, Daniel found rehabs that would take her boyfriend for free as long as Brianne attended with her Aetna insurance card, a practice known as “piggybacking.”

The addiction community has a name for what happened to Brianne. It’s called the “Florida shuffle,” a cycle wherein recovering users are wooed aggressively by rehabs and freelance “patient brokers” in an effort to fill beds and collect insurance money. The brokers, often current or former drug users, troll for customers on social media, at Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and on the streets of treatment hubs such as the Florida coast and Southern California’s “Rehab Riviera.” The rehabs themselves exist in a quasi-medical realm where evidence-based care is rare, licensed medical staffers are optional, conflicts of interest are rampant, and regulation is stunningly lax.

Drug addiction rates have skyrocketed over the past decade—if every American hooked on opioids lived in one city, it would be nearly the size of Houston (pop. 2.3 million). The demand for treatment, the increasingly white face of addiction, and recent laws requiring insurers to cover addiction services have all resulted in a surge in rehab spending and private investment. But as the Braff Group, which tracks health care trends, warned investors in a 2014 brief, “It’s not all kittens and rainbows. As we have seen countless times in other frenzied health

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