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In South Florida’s Addiction Treatment Industry, Recovering Drug Users Can Be Bought And Sold

Five years ago, Dillon Katz stepped into a house in West Palm Beach.

“I walked in and the guy was sitting at this desk — no shirt on, sweating,” Dillon said.

The man asked Dillon for a smoke.

“So I gave him a couple cigarettes,”  Dillon said. “He went around the house and grabbed a mattress from underneath the house — covered in dirt and leaves and bugs. He dragged it upstairs and threw it on the floor and told me, ‘Welcome home.’ ”

The house was a “sober home” — a kind of halfway house intended to integrate recovering drug and alcohol users back into community life and keep them on the right path.

Credit Peter Haden / WLRN
Staci Katz keeps bills for her son Dillon’s five years of on-and-off drug treatment in three large binders. The total charges now exceed $600,000. In 2015, a South Florida lab billed Dillon’s insurance company $64,000 for 21 urinalysis tests. “You could see … it was very lucrative,” she said.

Some sober home operators are dedicated to helping residents succeed in recovery. But others see addicts as a payday. A corrupt drug treatment center might pay $500 a week in kickbacks to sober home operators who steer them clients with health insurance — somebody like Dillon Katz.

The process is known as “body brokering."

At her home in Boynton Beach, Dillon’s mom, Staci Katz, pulls out three huge binders where she keeps track of his medical bills. She’s tallied up the charges for the five years Dillon’s been in-and-out of treatment: more than $600,000.

“You could see by the billing — this was very lucrative,” Staci Katz said.

There are charges for all kinds of things, including nutrition counseling, acupuncture and chiropractic care. But the big expenses were for the gold: urine testing.

Credit Peter Haden / WLRN
Body brokers used to target recovering drug users frequently hanging out on the patio of a Delray Beach Starbucks. The coffee shop restricted access to the patio in 2015 after a meeting with the city officials and the police department.

“When they had charged $9,500 for five urinalysis, I was like, 'Huh! Now I get it.,’ ” Staci Katz said.

Dillon’s insurance was billed $64,000 by a South Florida lab for 21 urinalysis tests in 2015, records show.

State and federal officials have been cracking down on fraudulent rehab centers.

The Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force has arrested and charged more than 30 operators of addiction treatment centers and sober homes with body brokering in the past 10 months.

In July, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the arrest of 30-year old Delray Beach rehab owner Eric Snyder. Prosecutors say he billed insurance companies for more than $58 million in bogus treatment and tests and recruited addicts with gift cards, visits to strip clubs and drugs.

Dillon Katz was staying at a sober home across the street when Snyder’s was raided.

Dillon is 25 years old and alternates between an easy smile and a piercing gaze. He was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome and Attention Deficit Disorder at a young age. In high school, he loved acting and music but struggled socially. It was after high school that Dillon’s drug use escalated -- from cocaine to crack to heroin. And his behavior went off the rails.

Credit Peter Haden / WLRN
Delray Beach Fire Rescue answers a double-overdose call at a sober living facility on Nov. 18, 2016.

“I ended up throwing my suitcase out of the window,” Dillon  said. “I was punching the garage. My hands were bloody. I was flipping out.”

Dillon’s mom, Staci, had had enough of the chaos. “I said, ‘If you want help, then I will help you,’” Staci Katz said. “We had no idea what we were up against.”

That’s when their drug treatment rollercoaster started. For the next five years, Dillon went from one treatment center, to another, to another.

“The people my group counseling meetings would offer to help get me into a new place,” Dillon Katz said. “But they always asked first, ‘What’s your insurance like?’ ” He’s pretty sure now — they were doing it for the money.

Body brokering is a source of frustration for legitimate drug rehab providers.

Credit Peter Haden / WLRN
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg heads the county’s Sober Home Task Force. In the past 10 months, it has arrested and charged 28 operators of addiction treatment centers and sober homes with 'patient brokering.'

“Kids are literally being bought and sold.” said Andrew Burki, founder of Life of Purpose — an addiction treatment center on the Florida Atlantic University campus. “You want $500? Sell a friend! That’s crazy, right? But that’s literally what’s happening.”

Dillon Katz now lives in Port St. Lucie in a house he shares with two others. Dillon is doing well -- he's been clean for eight months now and he’s a tattoo artist — a job he likes.

After the unsuccessful rehab stays, an arrest and stint in jail landed Dillon in drug court.  So he has an incentive to stay off drugs.  And he said, he's found the best support for him is through a recovery fellowship.

“Any kind of spiritual program -- that’s the answer,” said Dillon.

Credit Peter Haden / WLRN
Life of Purpose Founder Andrew Burki has been working with the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force to strengthen oversight in the recovery industry and rein in corruption. 'Kids are literally being bought and sold,' he said.

And, he said, no insurance required.