For-profit clinics that market to patients with eating disorders or alcohol or drug abuse problems have grown in popularity in recent years. They can be pricey, but their operators insist the residential facilities offer expertise, attentive, needed, and specialized care that hospitals and medical centers cannot. But as the centers have proliferated, health care experts are expressing growing concern about their costs, safety, effectiveness, and marketing.
And now local prosecutors have stepped in, asserting in what may be a landmark case, that a California addiction treatment center is guilty of a patient’s negligent homicide.
The case in Riverside County involves an ailing 53-year-old, longtime smoker and alcohol abuser who sought detox care at one of the 1,500 addiction treatment centers just in the Golden State.
The center, part of a chain, took him in, along with the oxygen tank he was tethered to. The staff, thinking he was suffering from alcohol withdrawal, gave the wheezing, coughing patient anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs from a house stash. He ended up dead, because he was recovering from pneumonia and had been given a wrong medication that inhibited his breathing, prosecutors say.
They say the center, like all too many in the state, put profits before patients, taking in someone who was in dire need of medical care and not just treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. Four center staff have been charged with second-degree murder. Experts say the case is a warning to those in addiction treatment to clean up a highly profitable business that has boomed with too little oversight. (I’ve written before about the national crisis with addiction, for example, with powerful prescription painkillers).
The center has declined to comment. But other operators say their patients are tough to treat because they often have multiple health conditions besides their addictions. State regulators have questioned the centers’ practices because, among other reasons, they market themselves so aggressively. Their staff tell of working in call-centers where a bed-filling mentality holds sway, and they are urged to twist arms with patients and referring caregivers.
Too much marketing hype?
That kind of mindset is growing in centers that treat weight problems, experts warn. A new academic study questions the transparency of the marketing for eating disorders facilities, which have increased in a decade in number from 22 to 75.
Experts say the effectiveness is unclear for the many and varied treatments the residential centers give patients during stays of a week or two. Patients say they have paid hundreds of thousands for treatment.
Meantime, mental health practitioners say they receiving more and more pitches and promotions to refer sometimes deeply troubled patients to the eating disorder centers. They get trinkets like pens and tote bags but also offers for expenses-paid visits and tours of distant facilities in pleasant places.
Advocates say that the industry needs to open up, examine and improve its practices, and set and enforce standards, before bigger problems crop up, including a regulatory crackdown.