Rubio bill that penalizes corrupt drug-treatment centers passes Congress

Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio Getty Images

Marco Rubio isn’t a big fan of the U.S. Senate’s often slow-moving ways, but he managed to get a bill passed in less than six months that allows the federal government to crack down on non-reputable drug recovery homes.

In the midst of partisan fighting over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, Congress passed a sweeping bipartisan opioid package on Wednesday, a massive bill introduced at the beginning of 2017 that eventually included Rubio’s legislation, after he worked with Democratic Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, to fight against a drug recovery system that allows unscrupulous treatment homes to collect thousands in private insurance payments from addicts and their families.

“The way this place works, to get from an idea in June to a law in October is not common. I don’t think I’ll be saying this much,” Rubio said. “We were brainstorming what we could do at the federal level and came up with a federal law that goes after the middlemen who make all this money. They’re basically trapping people and they put them back into rehab.”

The opioid package includes dozens of smaller bills like Rubio’s aimed at different parts of the opioid crisis, including preventing opioids from being sent through the U.S. Postal Service from foreign countries and various other aspects of prevention, treatment and recovery. The package passed the House with nearly 400 votes in favor and passed the U.S. Senate on Wednesday in a 98-1 vote. The few no votes came from conservatives who vehemently oppose expanding the size of the federal government.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the legislation into law.

Many of the bills included in the package were sponsored by lawmakers facing tough reelection fights in the coming weeks, including Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Longboat Key Republican who sent a press release titled “U.S. Senate Passes Buchanan Opioid Bill” because it included a proposal by Buchanan that creates a national database of medical providers who safely provide pain medication to patients. Rubio isn’t facing reelection until 2022.

Rubio’s bill was cosponsored by Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Rubio’s bill didn’t initially make it into the package because it wasn’t officially introduced until July, though he managed to secure placeholder language for his idea to prevent drug-addiction call centers from making money off every patient referral without verifying whether the treatment provider is reputable. He also held up the bill from initially passing the U.S. Senate via voice vote until his bill was included.

The labs and “sober homes” where some addicts reside while in recovery currently get a cut of the insurance money, a practice that is already illegal for government-run insurance programs like Medicaid but not for private insurance or Obamacare plans.

“When [the House and Senate] got into negotiations, at one point it was being blocked because they saw it as a Republican ask,” Rubio said. “We had one minor hiccup at the end because apparently California passed a similar bill so we came up with some language that allowed them to keep their law and we were able to pass it.”

Various states, including Florida, have state-level laws that seek to prevent treatment clinics from tapping into insurance money by routing addicts to labs that charge thousands for routine drug tests and keeping them in homes where drug dealers are free to continue providing opioids to patients so they end up staying in recovery — and spend more insurance money.

The federal government has previously included drug recovery treatment as an essential health benefit, so insurance companies would not kick people off plans for spending weeks in rehab. But the existing federal law created a money-making incentive for some rehab centers to keep people in recovery for as long as possible.

“We can’t fix this problem ourselves at the local level,” Aronberg said. “We need the federal government to do its part, because patient brokering has been so rampant in the drug-treatment industry. It required federal intervention and now we’ve got it, and that will go a long way.”

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Palm Beach State Attorney David Aronberg Courtesy Palm Beach State Attorney's Office

Aronberg, who leads a state-level task force targeting corrupt sober homes in Florida, said Broward Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch was extremely helpful in moving the bill on the House side.

Rubio said federal legislation allows the Justice Department to go after bad actors, many of whom operate or solicit patients across state lines, and shift their operations when local officials start to crack down.

“It’s a very profitable business model,” Rubio said. “Once we take out a couple of these bad guys, things will change. There are legitimate operators that we are not targeting.”

Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049