Los Angeles

Rehab Racket? ‘Patient Brokers' Cashing in On Addicts, Officials Say

"Something strange started happening. She was thrown out of a sober house. Within hours she was in a new sober house. And then she was out of that one and then into another one"

A potential crackdown is looming on the world of "patient brokering," where head-hunters find people fighting addiction, and essentially sell them to the highest bidder.

Officials say patient brokers are ruthless, targeting vulnerable people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. The head-hunters can make as much as $10,000 for each person they book for treatment. California lawmakers say the abuse's reach is far and wide, and they're trying to stop it.

Jeanette is a mother who knows all about the problem. 

Jeanette's daughter was a typical teenager.

She loved softball and cheerleading. But at 15, Jeanette says the bubbly girl she knew fell into a dark world.

"Friend choice changes. Grades going down. She lost interest in cheerleading," she said.

She says her daughter became hooked on drugs. By age 18, Jeanette says her daughter moved to California for treatment.

"Something strange started happening. She was thrown out of a sober house. Within hours she was in a new sober house. And then she was out of that one and then into another one," her mom said.

Jeanette believes her daughter fell in with "patient brokers" -- people who bonded with and recruited her, putting her in treatment centers, to then get kickbacks from facilities willing to pay top dollar. Those facilities then charged tens of thousands of dollars to Jeanette's insurance company. Jeanette says these brokers even bought things for her daughter.

"She got taken out to nice dinners almost every night. She got clothes bought for her," she said.

California has more than 2,000 licensed facilities -- and many more unregulated recovery homes, according to the State Department of Health Care Services. There are a lot of beds to fill, so some unscrupulous places hire brokers. Officials say they find patients wherever they can, at times shipping people to our communities from out of state.

"I've been offered $2,500 to go to California for detox," Isaac, who didn't want his last name to be released, said.

He lives in Florida and said he's been paid three times to come to California for treatment.

"The good news is that California is becoming a destination for recovery centers," Senator Ricardo Lara said. "The bad thing about that is it's actually becoming a place where significant fraud is taking place."

Lara said patient brokering contributes to higher insurance premiums for all across the state.

"We pay up to 20 or 30 percent additional in our own premiums to try to prevent fraud," he said.

Advocates add this practice also affects the homeless population, because when insurance stops paying, some facilities kick drug and alcohol dependent patients to the street.

There are at least two bills pending that would ban patient brokering in California. State Senator Lara is sponsoring one of them.

Lara says he's worried that if something isn't done, the problem will get worse.

For now, families are left to worry about their loved ones.

"I'm sad that there are people taking advantage of naive, young people out there. You know, who don't know better yet," Jeanette's mother said.

Jeanette says her daughter is still seeking treatment in California. There are referral services that will help patients find a qualified, licensed facility. But those legitimate operators are found through your insurance company or a hospital. They are not considered patient brokers.

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