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Recent Focus on Patient Brokering Is Encouraging, But A Long Road is Still Ahead

Douglas Tieman | July 31, 2018

Recent Focus on Patient Brokering Is Encouraging, But A Long Road is Still Ahead

For the past two years, we’ve advocated to end online patient brokering and “black hat” marketing. One common form of patient brokering occurs when people looking online for “addiction treatment near me” are funneled by lead-capture telemarketers who sell their information to the highest bidder. Patients seeking treatment, instead of getting the help that matches their individual needs, are treated as sales leads.

Last December, I testified before Congress about the damage that such tactics cause families and individuals seeking treatment, advocating for a Patient Bill of Rights that outlined what patients and their families had a right to expect when seeking treatment for substance use disorder.

Since then, and in the past few weeks in particular, several events have given me hope that this issue has been recognized nationally and actions are being taken to correct it. At the same time, we are still a long way from real progress.

Google Cleans Up Paid Search with LegitScript Certification for Treatment Providers
For the past several years call aggregators invested heavily in Google Ads (formerly known as Google AdWords) to dominate search so that unethical marketers showed up high in the results when someone searched for terms like “addiction treatment” and “drug rehab.” Google finally acted, blocking the ability to bid on such search terms, and partnered with LegitScript to vet addiction treatment advertisers. Treatment organizations, like Caron, had to apply for certification to advertise on Google.

Caron completed the very comprehensive LegitScript application and we are now approved to begin advertising on Google for addiction treatment/rehab keywords. Now, if you look at the very bottom of our website, you’ll see the Verify LegitScript Approval logo.

This weeding out of the worst of the bad actors online is a good start, however it does not account for those organizations that achieve certification but provide poor treatment. It also only addresses paid search; organic search reform should also be considered. Finally, it just affects Google, and doesn’t extend to other search engines such as Bing.

More from the Bipartisan Investigation into Patient Brokering
Last week also saw the continuation of the bipartisan investigation into treatment sector ethics by the Congressional Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. During a hearing on Tuesday, a few treatment organizations who use call centers were asked how their calls are routed, how their call center representatives are incentivized, and why it isn’t more clearly noted on their website that their facility’s staff members will be answering calls.

Perhaps the major theme of the hearing voiced by two of our partners for treatment sector reform - Marv Ventrell of the National Association of Treatment Providers and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation President and CEO Mark Mishek - was the overarching need for national standards in addiction treatment. Unlike hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical care facilities, this sector has no universal certification across the continuum of care.

While this continued commitment from Congress is a huge victory that’s gaining attention -- the Federal Trade Commission presented the committee with a letter of support -- there are still many questions around who will establish consistent, enforceable regulations in the addiction treatment industry and how they will do so.

It’s clear, legislation is needed at the state and federal level. We encourage legislators to draft and pass a Patient Brokering Act that would ultimately prohibit these practices and recognize violations as a felony, punishable by prison and heavy fines. A Patient Brokering Act should also revise the definition of the term racketeering to include entities providing substance use disorder (SUD) treatment marketing services.

Yes, these recent events show us how far we’ve come, but to save millions of lives, we can’t rest here.

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