AG warns of addiction treatment facility scams

Peter SanAngelo

BOSTON, Mass. (WPRI) – Peter SanAngelo was addicted to opioids and desperate for help.

“He had a young son and really wanted to have a life that would allow him to be a positive influence and be a present parent,” said SanAngelo’s cousin, Samatha Herring. “That was really the underlying drive for him to get help.”

SanAngelo, a Massachusetts resident, told Herring about his plan to go to a recovery residence in Florida.

“He was offered, ‘hey we can get you a scholarship to go down to beach-side and get treatment down there, how would you like that?” said Herring. “We’ll pay to fly you down there. We’ll coordinate everything.'”

But hope turned heartache in October in one phone call from the manager at the so-called sober home where SanAngelo had entrusted his life.

“He advised me that Peter had died in their van, their company van the night before from an overdose,” said Herring.

Peter SanAngelo

Herring believes the facility wasn’t providing the treatment or the support that was promised.

“It was very tragic for our family,” said Herring.

The Scam

The Florida State Attorney for Palm Beach County, Dave Aronberg, says this scenario is common. He says addicts with private insurance are targeted by facilities that are after a big insurance payday.

Aronberg says patient information is often falsified by patient brokers, people who are paid to recruit addicts to the scam facilities. “They applied for changes to his insurance policy and did so because he had a new address, which happened to be from a state that had very lucrative benefits,” said Herring.

Aronberg says most of these sober houses are unregulated and actually count on patients relapsing because it means an additional big insurance payout.

“This crisis is very real in our country and one of the things we’ve come to realize is that there are some people who are basically cashing in on it, cashing in on the struggle of other people,” said Herring.

Recruiting Addicts

Elizabeth Mooney promised SanAngelo’s family that he was going to a reputable treatment facility. “I told his family that everything was going to be OK, that he was going to go to a really good place,” Mooney told Target 12.

Mooney said she was making $700 a week, referring addicts to sober homes in Florida. “I never went out seeking individuals,” said Mooney. “They were given my number.”

She didn’t realize she was part of the scheme.

“It still weighs on my heart,” said Mooney. “I went in this trying to help others get out of a situation up here [in Massachusetts] where they were being told, ‘sorry no bed. I can’t get you into further treatment.'”

Mooney quit.

“I couldn’t stay there any longer,” said Mooney. “They were shuffling individuals in, throwing them into detox, and just shoveling, come back, detox, come back.”

A recovering addict herself, Mooney now works for the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery.

“I’m able to advocate for others,” said Mooney.

Tackling the Problem

Palm Beach County, Florida created a Sober Homes Task Force to investigate this issue. The task force meets regularly, and has made several recommendations to improve industry regulations.

Cases like SanAngelo’s also prompted Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to issue a warning about out-of-state scam treatment centers.

“Unfortunately, we have heard about people being recruited to out-of-state facilities, only to be left without a way home and without the care they are looking for,” Healey said in a statement. “We need to improve access to effective recovery options and make sure that anyone who attempts to profit off of this epidemic or take advantage of families struggling with addiction is held accountable.”

Though SanAngelo’s battle ended thousands of miles from home, his cousin is continuing the fight for others.

“This is somebody’s brother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother,” said Herring. “They have hope and they need to be able to access a system that cares about them instead of throws them to the wolves for a buck.”

How to Spot the Scam

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey issued the following advice if someone offers to arrange for you or a loved one to travel out of state to receive addiction treatment:

  • Be wary of unsolicited referrals to out-of-state treatment facilities.
  • Anyone paid a referral fee for recommending a particular treatment center does not have your best interests in mind.
  • Be wary of anyone offering to pay for your insurance coverage. They can stop paying your premiums at any time, which will result in the cancellation of your insurance.
  • If you accept an offer by someone to pay for travel to an out-of-state clinic, make sure you have a plan and the means to pay for a trip back home.
  • Be careful about giving your personal information – including your social security number or insurance number – to a recruiter, unless you can confirm that the person is employed by a medical provider or insurance company.
  • If someone is offering to arrange travel or cover insurance costs for treatment, call the treatment facility or your insurance company to confirm that the person is an employee.

To safely access treatment services in Massachusetts, contact the Massachusetts Substance Abuse Hotline online or at 1-800-327-5050. Rhode Islanders can call 401-942-STOP.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.