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Opioid Fraud: When Rehabs Seek Relapse Instead of Recovery

Published September 19, 2017
| Written By SpineNation Editorial Staff  

"It's terrible right now. I don't know of any business that wants to kill its customers, but this one does," remarked Florida resident, Timothy Schnellenberger who has worked for years, unilaterally with drug treatment centers. "It really breaks my heart. Kids are dying left and right."

Across the state of Florida, operating owners of multiple rehabs are being investigated for possible fraudulent allegations. It's not just a headline though — this is real life for some — for most, these days.

When it comes to treating back pain, opioids for relief have been the go-to for years. Addiction rates are souring and chronic back pain patients still need support without worrying about dependence. Everyday in the U.S., 105 people die as a result of a drug overdose and 50 percent are from painkillers prescribed by a doctor for chronic pain conditions such as chronic back pain.

For those who may sneak an extra pill time and time again, you may not realize you're walking a tight rope on a path to substance abuse.

Maybe you need rehab? And if you travel to South Florida, the notorious recovery zone, you may not be getting what you thought you were.

Getting Specific

The Reflections treatment center illustrated hope as Michelle Holley's teenage daughter entered its doors on a path to throw heroin curbside.

"It looked fine. They were saying all the right things to me. I could not help my child so I trusted them to help," Holley recalled.

Rather than hope and recovery, relapse and more addiction took place inside Reflections' walls along with dozens of additional drug treatment centers in sunny Florida. Most of these companies thrive off the "sick kid" and only see dollar signs. Instead of helping their clients find the hope they were promised, the owners are more interested in swindling insurance corporations by keeping the addicts addicted, Holley and her family declared in an interview.

The center rejected to provide Jaime Holley (the daughter) her medically required pills prior to leaving, which aided in her relapse because she couldn't deal with the withdrawal symptoms of the opioids she was trying to avoid. It's a vicious cycle and these kids need help but help is not what they are getting.

The 19-year-old died of a heroin overdose this past November.

"Right to my face — they lied to me, and I believed them," the grieving mother effortlessly remembered. It's not just the parents though.

According to law enforcement officials and treatment experts, as opposed to diligently striving to support their occupants on the road to recovery, more and more treatment centers are directing their focus on how to get their patients to relapse. If they can keep the insurance money coming in, they will do so by whatever means necessary.

Reaping the Repercussions

Both Reflections and Journey — treatment centers in South Florida owned by Kenneth Chatman — are officially closed. CEO Chatman is currently serving a 27-year federal prison sentence subsequent to pleading guilty to health care fraud and money laundering. Family's are pleased justice was served but it doesn't bring their kids back.

As narcotic addiction and chronic back pain slaughters families nationwide, "There's a need for a positive, vibrant recovery network to help people get off of opioids," spoke Chief Prosecutor of Palm Beach County and State Attorney, Dave Aronberg. "You can't just arrest your way out of this problem."

Authorities say widespread insurance fraud seems to be dominating sunny South Florida instead of the reverse.

"The incentive is to keep them in this relapse system, this gravy train that doesn't end until the person leaves in a body bag or an ambulance," replied Aronberg, who leads an opioid task force that has executed over 30 fraud busts. "There's no money in sobriety."

And this addiction game is a $1 billion business in Palm Beach County alone, federal executives report.

More Intimate

Did you know that Florida has more sober homes per capita than in any state? This type of fraud has come to light in Arizona and California, however, Florida's numbers are so high because more people relocate to the Del Ray Beach area than any other location for recovery. But whenever there's recovery, there's that much more relapse and the numbers don't lie.

Two people accidentally die from an opioid overdose every 24 hours in Palm Beach County alone — specifically heroin laced with fentanyl. And today's typical heroin addict begins using at 23, is expected to live in an affluent suburb and was likely unconsciously led to heroin by painkillers originally prescribed by his or her doctor.

According to Florida's medical examiner, "Statewide, deaths from this combination rose 75 percent in 2015 as more than 2,500 people died in Florida from opioid-related overdoses."

Similar to Chapman's operation, another rehab and halfway house corporation, The Real Life Recovery Delray Treatment Center and Halfway is now under investigation. The former owner of both locations, Eric Snyder, 30, was arrested on a charge of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. Snyder accumulated nearly $19 million from fraudulently billing insurance companies for $58 million over the course of four years. His case is currently awaiting trial.

Fraudulent urine analysis became “a profit machine,” according to FBI investigators.

The fraud charges include faked urinalysis samples, double-billing, bribing patients in the form of gift cards, trips to casinos and strip clubs, as well as free airline tickets.

Taking Chatman as an example, his patients were provided street drugs in order to promote a positive drug test so that they could be in "relapse" mode when their insurance was about to run out. Court documents prove that he also provoked several female patients into prostitution for free rent, confiscated car keys, cell phones, and/or prescription medications. And that's the owner of the rehab promoting recovery.

"They don't care if you die. They just want to keep swiping that insurance card so they can keep getting money out of you," admitted Blake Oppenheimer from Louisville, Kentucky, who was placed in a treatment center that ended up getting shut down for fraud. "I felt like I was something in a store that was just trying to be sold over and over again."

Almost There

Luckily, the law is still on our side. Anyone being treated for addiction is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as health privacy laws.

Florida legislation has provided stricter punishments for patient brokering and has placed extra limitations on deceptive marketing techniques. Cities such as Delray Beach and Boynton Beach recently launched a new set of rules for all group homes, which require an accreditation through a regulatory organization like the Florida Association of Recovery Residences in order to keep its doors open.

Oppenheimer, 23, is now at Schnellenberger's Recovery Boot Camp and has hopes that someday she will return to college and study neuroscience, unlike Holley who lost her life and ability to grow up.

"This is the last house on the block for me," Oppenheimer concluded. "This is my last opportunity, and I've got to use it."

Home Sweet Home

Are you currently taking opioids for back pain relief? Are you taking more than your daily prescribed dose? Then, maybe a drug treatment center could do you good but how do you find the right one for you? Start here.

  • When selecting a rehab, plan for 30 days of inpatient care. During your stay, you will work with licensed doctors and therapists to help you get to the root of your addiction.
  • Choose a treatment center with highly-credentialed staff, innovative treatment techniques with aftercare opportunities, and flexible schedules.
  • To better assist, was created to provide information for those suffering from substance abuse and behavioral addictions — either personally or through loved ones as well as to connect those people with the treatment programs that can help them.

While fraud stories like these happen from time to time and cast a negative light on rehabilitation centers, there are plenty of others who are helping people make strides in recovery. Your back pain may never fully go away, but your addiction to pills can.

Updated: June 7, 2021

Information provided within this article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Those seeking specific medical advice should consult his or her doctor or surgeon. If you need to consult with a specialist, you may be able find a health care provider in our Specialist Finder. SpineNation does not endorse treatments, procedures, products or physicians.

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