No More Business as Usual for the Recovery Industry

What would you do if your loved one was struggling with an addiction? And not just struggling, but potentially dying? How much would you pay? The answer is, when you’re in crisis, a lot.

When I agreed to direct THE BUSINESS OF RECOVERY, I didn’t know exactly what I’d find. It’s no secret that excessive alcohol accounted for 88,000 American deaths and drugs overdoses another 39,000 deaths. But the degree to which this health crisis seems to be worsening as an entire unchecked industry arose around it captured my attention. While the addiction treatment industry grew into a $34 billion a year business, overdose death rates had tripled in the past 25 years. How was this possible? I had to know what was really happening behind the veil of treatment.

Greg Horvath, my producer, worked in the industry for a few years and saw firsthand what was going on. I had no prior experience in addiction treatment when he approached me about the documentary, but as a filmmaker, I was interested in discovering and laying bare the human cost of the failures of the industry.

I think I had always assumed that there was a system in place for people with addictions, and I naively thought that all someone had to do was agree to get help and things would get better. After all, I’d hear it in the news about celebrities all the time, “So and so checked in to rehab today…”

My eyes have been opened to a world that’s far more complicated and money-saturated than I ever imagined.

For example, would you be concerned if your doctor were getting a fee to refer you to a specific surgeon? Or to prescribe a specific drug? Doctors technically can’t receive kickbacks because they wouldn’t make decisions with a patient’s best interests in mind. But in the treatment world, rehab organizations pay legal referral fees all the time to fill their facilities.

Would you pay top dollar for a treatment that claimed an 80% success rate? Those would be pretty good odds, if only that indicator meant something. The truth is that misleading advertising is commonplace in addiction treatment. In the course of our filming, we asked many treatment centers if they knew the effectiveness of their programs. The data provided would often be based on self-reporting or other non-scientific methods. If you called an addict up and asked them if they were still using a year later, would you expect an honest answer? Many people in our film said they’d just blatantly lie because they were either embarrassed or didn’t want to go back to treatment.

When we’d speak to treatment center representatives who would emphatically proclaim that their treatment worked, I didn’t doubt their belief in these claims – they had sincere faith in their programs. Many had been through similar programs at some point, and this personal experience often drove their passion for helping others. But I found that there is some willful ignorance on the part of the industry to accept that anyone has “the answer.” Addiction itself has no single source, but is rather a symptom of a complex of health problems that sometimes require trained professionals to help unravel. But often, these treatment programs would have too few trained professionals, and instead, rely on newly sober individuals to lead addicts out of their troubles.

Sober living homes continue to multiply. I learned that these environments are largely unregulated and could be deadly. Imagine two dozen, barely sober, unsupervised individuals in a house. If this sounds like an obvious recipe for disaster, it is. One mother I interviewed lost her son to a sober living home when another individual brought heroin into the home. Another addict called them “high living homes,” since addicts would often find it all too easy to meet another user with “connections.” Deaths in sober living homes are not uncommon.

How many more people have to die? It’s time for things to change. An industrywith human lives in the balance cannot continue business as usual. We expect our government to police the rest of the healthcare industry – why is addiction treatment given a blind eye?

Here’s what we’re up against: an industry that wants little to no government involvement. Who can blame them? It’s a business, after all. They spend money on lobbying efforts to prevent any meaningful legislation. Case in point: an Arizona bipartisan attempt to regulate sober living (HB 2563) recently failed in the state Senate after industry trade organizations fought to kill the bill.

Please join us in demanding change. We need to begin a rigorous public health discussion to adjust how we approach treating addictions, and we should require government oversight to protect us from manipulative advertising and false promises.

The families I interviewed for the documentary are courageous for speaking publicly about their experiences. I hope that their tragedies will provide a wake-up call for the rest of us to take action.

The Business of Recovery premieres at The Newport Beach Film Festival on Sunday, April 26, 2015 at 7:45pm. For ticket info and future screenings, please visit www.thebusinessofrecovery.com.