About five years ago, Dillon Katz entered a house in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“I walked in and the guy was sitting at this desk — no shirt on, sweating,” Katz says.
The man asked Katz for a cigarette.
“So I gave him a few cigarettes,” Katz says. “He went around the house and grabbed a mattress from under the house – covered in dirt and leaves and insects. He dragged it upstairs and threw it on the floor and said, ‘Welcome home.’ “
The house was a sober house or “sober house” – a type of privately owned halfway house designed to reintegrate recovering drug and alcohol users into community life and help them stay on track. It was one of the first sober houses Katz lived in. Since then, he has been in and out of drug treatment.
Some sober homes are good places. But others see a person who has an addiction as a payday.
Amid the growing opioid crisis in the country, South Florida has become a mecca for drug treatment. And as more people seek help, there is a greater chance of corruption and insurance fraud. According to officials investigating the problem, there are millions to be made by billing patients for unnecessary treatments and tests.
The first step for unscrupulous rehabilitation centers: recruiting clients with good health insurance. That has created a whole new industry – something called patient mediation or “body mediation.”
The corrupt owner of a drug treatment center could pay $500 a week in bribes to the operators of sober homes who send them clients with health insurance – clients like Dillon Katz.
At her home in Boynton Beach, Florida, Dillon’s mother, Staci Katz, pulls out three huge folders in which she keeps track of his medical bills. She has tallied the charges for the five years her 25-year-old son has been in and out of treatment: more than $600,000 dollars.
“You could tell from the billing – this was very lucrative,” Staci says.
There are costs for all sorts of things, including nutritional advice, acupuncture, and chiropractic care. But the big expense was for the testing – urine tests.
“When they charged $9,500 for five urinalysis,” she says, “I was like, ‘Huh! Now I get it.” “
State and federal officials have cracked down on fraudulent drug rehabilitation centers.
The Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force has arrested and charged more than 30 addiction treatment center and sober home operators in the past 10 months with body brokering charges.
In July, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the arrest of Eric Snyder, the 30-year-old owner of a rehabilitation center in Delray Beach. Prosecutors say he billed insurance companies for more than $58 million in fake treatments and tests, and recruited addicts with gift cards, drugs and visits to strip clubs.
Dillon Katz was staying in a austere house across the street when Snyder’s house was robbed.
Katz alternates between an easy smile and a piercing look. He was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at a young age. In high school, he loved acting and music, but struggled socially. It was after high school that his drug use escalated – from cocaine to crack to heroin. And his behavior derailed.
“I ended up throwing my suitcase out the window,” Katz says. “I hit the garage. My hands were bloody. I freaked out.”
His mother finally decided she had had enough of the chaos.
“I said, ‘If you want help, I’ll help you,'” Staci recalls. “We had no idea what we were up against.”
That’s when their drug treatment roller coaster began. For the next five years, her son went from one treatment center to another, to another.
“The people who would offer my group counseling meetings to help me in a new place,” he says. “But they always asked first, ‘What about your insurance?’ “
He’s pretty sure they did it for the money now.
Body brokering is a source of frustration for legitimate providers of drug rehabilitation services.
“Children are literally bought and sold.” says Andrew Burkic, founder of Life of Purpose – an addiction treatment center on the Florida Atlantic University campus in Boca Raton. “You want $500? Sell a friend! I mean, that’s crazy, isn’t it? But that’s literally what happens.”
Dillon Katz now lives in Port Saint Lucie in a house he shares with two roommates. They hang out on the back patio, smoking Marlboro Menthols and squatting wisely.
He’s doing well, he says — he’s been clean for eight months now and he’s a tattoo artist, a job he likes.
After the failed rehab stays, an arrest and a stay in prison eventually brought him in drug court — that means his incentive to stay off the drugs now includes the need to convince a judge he’s clean. Katz says he has found the best support for him is through a recovery grant.
“Any kind of spiritual program,” Katz says. “That’s the answer.”
And, he adds, no insurance is required.