A bill that ties addiction treatment center referrals for recovery support to Florida sober homes’ pursuit of certification based on national standards of operation was signed into law this month. But many uncertainties remain about the degree to which the law might help to weed out some of the unscrupulous sober home providers in South Florida and to clean up the overall business reputation of the region’s treatment and recovery communities.

One area that some consider a significant loophole in the law involves an exemption from certification as a condition of receiving treatment center referrals for recovery homes that are owned and operated by a licensed treatment provider. Many licensed providers in South Florida, particularly at the partial hospitalization level of care, own unlicensed sober homes as part of their continuum of service and support, and some of these entities are among the most aggressive in advertising out of state to attract young people in early recovery to Florida.

“Some of the people being lured to Florida don’t even know what recovery means,” Jeffrey Lynne, an attorney in Palm Beach County who has represented numerous treatment facilities, told ADAW. Lynne in March wrote to state legislative leaders in an attempt to have the exemption re-examined, but that effort did not bring about a language change — he believes in part because in a short legislative session, the existing version of the bill was considered more palatable to a broader coalition.

The legislation received little public comment from Florida’s primary treatment community over the course of this year’s session, confirmed John Lehman, president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR), the membership group that has been leading the effort to eliminate unethical practices in the sober home community. As evidence that the potential impact of the law remains uncertain to many — or that the entire subject is simply too politically sensitive for some — several treatment leaders contacted by ADAW last week did not reply to a request for comment.

Certification procedures

The legislation, which proceeded through the state House of Representatives as H.B. 21 and the state Senate as S.B. 326, calls for the state Department of Children and Families to designate two independent nonprofit groups to certify recovery homes and to credential recovery residence administrators. Sometime this summer, FARR will be designated as the certification entity for residences, and the Florida Certification Board will be named the credential body for administrators.

As ADAW was going to press, the organizations were awaiting the finalization of the state budget figures they will be receiving to launch the process. It appears that each will receive $100,000, somewhat less than the originally anticipated allocation.

For FARR itself, the new law will result in a major transition, as it no longer will be a membership organization representing sober homes. All of its direct and affiliate members will transition to membership in a new organization to be called Floridians for Recovery, Lehman told ADAW.

The subject that many are speculating about involves how many recovery residence operators will pursue the voluntary certification of their homes, which will then allow them to continue to receive treatment centers’ referrals after July 1, 2016. Both Lehman and Lynne believe that interest among those homes that are not exempted from the referral provision in the law will be high. Lehman is basing that in part on a surge in his phone call volume since the law was adopted and signed.

“People are telling me, ‘We want to be a part of this. We never thought you could pull it off,’” Lehman said. He thinks many recovery residences will pursue the certification, which will be based on compliance with National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR) standards, because they will want to be associated with residences that offer a true social model of recovery support.

Lynne agrees that many residences will pursue the certification but thinks a good number of them will not be able to meet the required standards. “Some of the kids who are running these houses don’t have any idea about the social model,” he said. “We have a big education problem here, as opposed to California, where there is a culture of social-model recovery.”

Will exception remain?

Lynne believes that all recovery residences in Florida should be required to meet basic standards of operation. “If the legislative intention is to provide safe and adequate recovery housing for our population, then the establishment of minimum standards for all recovery residences should be required,” he wrote in his letter to legislative leaders.

He also believes that all recovery homes that market themselves as maintaining a safe and drug-free environment should be formally registered, although attempts by municipalities to require this can run afoul of fair housing laws that protect recovery residences from being excluded from communities. Some cities in South Florida can only estimate the number of operating recovery homes within their city limits.

In some ways, the exemption for homes owned and operated by licensed treatment providers makes sense, in that those homes were already known to the state (although they were not the licensed entity) and the intent of the legislation was not to bar treatment providers from sending patients to their own recovery residence. Still, it is likely that some of these homes do not meet NARR or even state standards, in areas such as prohibitions against patient brokering, so it will be interesting to see how state officials might react if they discover that these homes fall short of what others are achieving.

Besides his concern about the exemption, Lynne believes that some sober home operators will not be compelled to pursue certification because it is they and not treatment providers who are directly luring young people to the state (so they don’t need to worry about a volume of referrals from treatment programs). But Lehman says 90 percent of the individuals who find their way to a recovery residence in Florida arrive there from a treatment program — often one that is improperly subsidizing the person’s housing costs in order to keep him or her in the treatment program longer, which keeps insurance payments coming.

Lehman said he believes that this year’s passage of the legislation has elevated the standing of dedicated recovery residences in the primary treatment community. “FARR is now considered to be a threat to the bad guys and an asset to the good guys, and that’s exactly where we want to be,” he said.

Bottom Line…

Observers expect that many Florida recovery residences will pursue the voluntary certification that will allow treatment programs to continue to refer individuals to them, but they are unsure about the ultimate effect of a new law’s exemption for recovery homes owned by licensed treatment providers.