Body brokering, where addicts are sold as investments, can continue in sober homes, for now

Body brokering, where addicts are sold as investments, can continue in sober homes, for now
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In this June 14, 2018 file photo, Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates, of Laguna Niguel, left, confers with seat mate Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Fountain Valley, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

A bill forbidding “body brokering” in sober living homes — and slapping a $50,000 penalty on each occurrence — was sent back to the drawing board by the Senate Health Committee Wednesday, Jan. 15.

For now, the move kills chances that sober homes in hundreds of Southern California neighborhoods will be forced to follow the same patient-recruitment rules that have recently been applied to licensed rehab centers.

The bill, SB 486, by Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, sought to add “commercially operated recovery residences” to the list of places that can’t give or receive anything of value for client referrals. She said it’s a logical extension of a 2018 law that prohibits patient brokering — when rehab centers pay third-parties to provide them with patients — in licensed addiction treatment centers.

Sober homes, where many addicted people stay after completing stints at residential rehab centers, often argue against state and city regulations by saying their clients are disabled and, as such, protected under federal law.

But Bates suggested that argument contradicts the spirit of a federal law aimed at protecting people with disabilities.

“It could not have been the intent of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) to allow patient-brokering to occur in sober living homes,” Bates told the committee. “California can prevent individuals with addiction from being treated as income-producing commodities. This predatory practice really needs to stop. We believe this is one area that has fallen through the cracks.”

Supporters of Bates’ bill included the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California and Advocates for Responsible Treatment, saying it addresses a gap in the law and that penalties should reflect the criminal intent of the actions.

The California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals liked the general idea, but felt a $50,000 mandatory fine was “extremely excessive” and worried that the term “commercially operated” could lead local zoning officials to view sober homes as businesses and not residences.

And officials with Disability Rights California, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities, spoke in opposition, arguing that the bill “crosses over the line” and violates state and federal fair housing laws that prohibit discrimination against the disabled. Addiction is considered a disability under the law, and the group said people who want to live together to maintain their sobriety should not be subject to regulations that are not applied to others without disabilities.

Senators on the committee thanked Bates for her continued efforts on this front — Orange County and the greater Los Angeles area are so sodden with addiction treatment and sober living homes that it’s known as the Rehab Riviera — but agreed that the bill, as written, runs afoul of federal protections for the disabled

“I applaud you for trying to make sure people aren’t bartered or sold,” said Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield.

Some rehabs and sober living homes have introduced chaos into once-quiet communities all over Southern California. Costa Mesa and the County of Orange have adopted laws to try to preserve neighborhoods as well as protect the disabled. Costa Mesa has been battling federal lawsuits over them, costing the city some $7 million.

It has been that kind of a week for Bates. For the fourth year in a row, the Senate Public Safety Committee rejected her bill that would target illegal distributors of fentanyl. SB 161 aimed to add the drug, far more powerful than heroin, to the list of substances subject to penalty enhancements.

Fentanyl-related deaths have skyrocketed over the past five years in California, especially in Los Angeles. The overall opioid death rate in Orange County eclipsed that of other Southern California counties.

Bates reacted with good cheer on Wednesday, promising to keep Florida’s stronger regulation of sober living homes as her model.

“We’ll keep working on this,” she said. “I do believe there’s a path forward here, it just hasn’t revealed itself yet.”

Body brokering, where addicts are sold as investments, can continue in sober homes, for now

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