Effective regulation of the addiction treatment industry will take education and collaboration

Effective regulation of the addiction treatment industry will take education and collaboration
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With the opioid epidemic continuing to plague America, it's never been more important to help those suffering from addiction find quality and trusted treatment options. Addiction is a complex medical issue that requires clinical treatment to address both the disease of addiction and co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

Unfortunately, there are some bad actors in the addiction treatment industry who lure patients to treatment centers that may not be the best option to meet their medical needs. Through patient brokering, hijacking business listings on search engines and aggregating calls for other treatment centers without disclosing conflicts of interest, these perpetrators are misleading and hurting patients. This, in turn, makes the public skeptical of the industry as a whole and discourages those who need treatment from seeking help.

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As the industry matures, we find ourselves at an important turning point in addiction treatment. More people need treatment than ever but industry reforms are needed to protect patients.

Last year, Google removed addiction treatment-related search terms from its Google Ads platform, suspending addiction treatment marketing efforts on that important medium. Google has since hired an independent third-party to audit treatment centers on various criteria — including criminal background checks, license verification and a commitment to best practices — and allowed those that meet the criteria back on the platform.

This was a positive step but more collaboration is necessary to make sure information available to those needing addiction treatment isn’t unduly limited. Google should work with fellow innovators in the digital space to not only remove bad actors but to promote platforms that provide convenient online access to all credible treatment options.

We see it as our responsibility to foster access to care for those seeking help. That’s why, in addition to providing treatment to patients around the country, AAC operates online directories that help patients decide on the best option for them, whether or not it’s an AAC facility.

Online directories play a key role because the majority of patients start their search for treatment online. Without trusted sources, the process of choosing a treatment center can be overwhelming. Given the continued stigma unfortunately associated with addiction, online resources are also critical to ensure patients can begin their search for treatment in a way that maintains their privacy.

We’re also constantly listening to feedback to improve the way we share information with patients. Trusted facilities around the country, including about 300 independent members of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP), use our directories to communicate with those seeking treatment.

Any facility is able to claim their own listing on our directories free-of-charge, in a manner similar to the directories provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Acadia Healthcare. AAC recently upgraded its directories, based on some constructive feedback from NAATP and elected officials at a hearing before the House Energy & Commerce Committee this past July.

Congress has rightfully focused on marketing practices in the addiction treatment industry. I was honored to testify at the recent hearing about best practices to ensure patients are protected and being presented with accurate information.

AAC has led the fight for regulation cracking down on unethical marketing practices in the industry. In our home state of Tennessee, we took a lead role in pushing for the recently-enacted law that prohibits false advertising and bans referral payments by treatment facilities. We also supported legislation in Florida that banned kickbacks for patient referrals.

We’re now hopeful that Congress will pass legislation to ensure those suffering from addiction are protected consistently around the country by:

  1. Criminalizing fraudulent advertising: Congress should ask the National Association of Insurance Commissioners or the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws to draft a model law banning deceptive marketing.

  2. Outlawing hijacking of treatment center phone numbers: Make it a crime for anyone to intentionally edit online listings to hijack phone numbers of other facilities.  

  3. Requiring disclosure about who owns and operates call centers: Ensure there are clear guidelines so patients can identify call center ownership.

  4. Banning kickbacks or bribes: Outlaw any fees paid for patient referrals in the industry.

These steps would go a long way to ensure patients are provided clear, truthful and accurate information about their treatment options. We want to work with Congress, state governments, industry organizations and digital platforms like Google to have an intelligent conversation that includes all of the industry’s leaders — big and small, nonprofits and commercial treatment providers — to ensure any reforms don’t limit access to care. We don’t want regulation aimed at a few bad actors to be so broad as to limit credible treatment providers from reaching patients online.

I firmly believe that the vast majority of addiction treatment providers came into the industry to help those suffering from a devastating disease. And most advertising for addiction treatment serves the needs of the patient by making it easier to find options — no different than the way medical offices and hospitals advertise. Limiting online resources for addiction treatment will only hurt patients by making it harder to access information.

It’s unfortunate that a few companies are damaging the reputations of the majority of facilities that do life-changing work. Addiction is a chronic disease. We believe that everyone deserves a chance to heal and recover through high quality medical and psychosocial treatment. Those seeking help from addiction are struggling enough. They shouldn’t also have to worry about deceptive marketing and false promises.

Michael Cartwright is chairman and co-founder of American Addiction Centers, has more than 20 years experience as a behavioral healthcare entrepreneur and has been in recovery himself for more than 25 years. AAC’s treatment options include 39 treatments locations across nine states that provide care for those suffering from addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.