SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- It has been dubbed "the Florida Shuffle." Drug addicts from across the country get lured to the sunshine state for decades with the promise of treatment, only to be traded from one unscrupulous drug rehab to another.
Meanwhile, the patient's insurance company gets milked for tens of thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges.
Many have OD'd and died in the process, prompting Florida lawmakers to crack down on the scam. Now some bad actors are luring their victims west to California.
"He called me when he was in treatment and started telling me about California," said Rich Strickling, who lives in Ohio. He says he had a feeling something was up when his 22-year-old son Alex -- a recovering heroin addict -- called to tell him he was planning to leave his treatment center in Florida for a new rehab facility in California.
Days later he got another call: Alex had overdosed and died in a motel room just a few miles from his drug rehab facility.
"I was building a wall waiting for the day it happened to my son, but nothing prepares you for that," said Strickling.
When he learned how the overdose happened, the pain turned to anger.
"There was someone whispering in his ear," said Strickling.
Turns out a person Alex met in treatment was offering him money and plane fare to switch to a new treatment center in Beverly Hills.
"I had all the text messages after my son passed away," said Strickling.
"Wanna go to Cali?" the person asks in the first text. "I'll send you like $200 to get you established out there and on top of that you get 2 packs of smokes a day, haircuts and gym."
"I'm pretty sure I am down," Alex responds.
Days passed. Then the messages get more urgent.
"What's the word homie? You ready? Cali's calling your name," the next set of texts begins.
Then the person spells out in detail what is needed: "Send me your insurance info and I'll run it to get you approved." Another text says, "Send it tomorrow I'll throw you the cash after 17 days, broski."
"I trust you lemme get back to you tomorrow with my info," Alex responded. After Alex finally sends his insurance information, radio silence follows.
Strickling now knows why.
"That same person that does the hard sell? They'll tell you toward the end that you have to be dirty you have to fail your urine test to get into treatment," explained the distraught father.
It was that relapse that cost Alex his life.
"It's the sales pitch. They're getting the trust. That was the thing that really hurts me and my mother is the fact that Alex trusted him. Alex thought this kid was his friend," said Strickling.
The person who was trying to lure Alex to California is what's known in the industry as a body broker. Unethical treatment centers will pay former addicts kickback money to recruit someone with good insurance to come to their facility. Then that rehab center will run the addict's insurance for unnecessary testing, making millions.
"A body broker to use an indelicate word is a pimp," said David Skonezny. He moderates a Facebook group called, "It's time for ethics in addiction treatment."
"Most often those people will be bought and sold over and over and over, including being paid to relapse often times," said Skonezny. On the Facebook group, he flags what he suspects might be unethical rehab centers.
Gretta Sudekum and Brandie Baca both responded to one such post about a rehab facility called UMNPA Treatment in Anaheim.
"I felt responsible, because I was bringing people in," said Sudekum.
"It was like a flop house, basically," said Baca.
The two former rehab center employees and others KPIX 5 spoke with reported to authorities that the center was paying for patients.
"I really feel sorry for the people who are really there to get well," said Baca.
The two women said that while they were working at UMNPA Treatment, there was no credentialed clinical staff on location as required by law.
They also said patients at the facility used drugs. Records show police responded to the center on calls concerning a near death heroin overdose, possible meth use, battery and an attempted suicide.
The two former employees provided KPIX 5 a balance sheet with a line item for $341,000 dollars for marketing. They believe that money was actually used to pay for clients.
"We would never pay a client to come to treatment," insisted the treatment center's president Indigo Allendorf when KPIX 5 inquired about money going to people receiving treatment.
So KPIX 5 asked her: "One of the line items in UMNPA Treatment's budget is for marketing/referrals and that this past year you guys spent about $341,000 on that? Who are you paying that money to?"
"We have a very reputable marketing firm that we pay a substantial monthly payment to," replied Allendorf. She then gave the name of the marketing company. But when KPIX 5 called, they'd never heard of UMNPA.
Brad Lamm operates a treatment center in the Hollywood hills. He is the only rehab owner in the state who supported a bill aimed at banning patient brokering that recently became law.
"It's sort of like Whack-A-Mole. One area of scamming is cracked down upon, then the scammers find another way to exploit the sector," said Lamm.
He says there are so many bad actors, operators like himself who refuse to pay for clients are struggling to stay open.
"In the midst of a crisis -- this epidemic like we have never seen before; more than 170 die a day just from the opioid epidemic -- you wonder how in the world do people sleep at night, preying on this vulnerable sector," said Lamm.
Victims' family members like Rich Strickling have a hard time sleeping too.
"It's the deafening echo of nothing, knowing the phone isn't going to ring again," said Strickling. He hopes by telling Alex's story, he can prevent another addict from being brokered and keep another parent's heart from being broken in the process.
Responding to reports of fraud and abuse, Governor Brown recently signed the new law that outlaws patient brokering in the treatment industry. If caught, a treatment center would be fined and could lose its license.
That penalty is much less strict than Florida's current law that makes the practice a felony.
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