Telegram & Gazette
Date: 7/2/17

America is in the worst opiate epidemic ever, and our Commonwealth is among the nation’s hardest hit. There were 1,933 confirmed opioid-related deaths in 2016, per the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Put another way, last year opiate addiction claimed the lives of 161 people each month, 37 people each week, and five people each day.

Who knows how many Massachusetts residents will die from opiates today, and who knows how many will fall victim to those seeking to profit from their vulnerability.

As was made abundantly clear in recent reports of “addict brokers” targeting and luring Bay State residents to sunny Florida with empty promises of recovery amid the palm trees, profiting off addiction is on the rise. Given the nature of the drug epidemic and the desperation involved, it’s unsurprising that there would be a new twist or gimmick to capitalize on one’s struggles. This latest disturbing trend underscores a need to better understand addiction before more people succumb to it.

These “body brokers,” many in recovery themselves, have been recruited to help subpar addiction treatment providers identify and deliver vulnerable individuals to their centers. Now these middlemen, in a new type of triangle scheme, stand to make a sizable profit while the individuals battling addiction are taken advantage of far from home.

In Massachusetts, brokers are working to send patients to centers in South Florida with scarce services and questionable ownership. The job, which can earn individuals up to tens of thousands of dollars a month, involves identifying prospective clients and arranging for both their travel and insurance coverage. Treatment is ineffective, and insurance coverage tends to fall through - still leaving clients struggling with their addiction far from home and owing large sums of money to the centers. A recent Public Radio International report found police, firefighters, hospital and morgues overwhelmed by the number of overdoses, including victims coming from out of state.

News coverage of opiate use primarily targets the toll on human life. That is important, of course, though what is lost amid the headlines is the daily struggles that people with addiction face. In the throes of this awful disease, they are in immense pain and a state of confusion. Knowing who to trust becomes nearly impossible, and the promise of a successful recovery, “away from it all,” is alluring. It can also be fatal, as is often the case with the Florida scam.

Dr. John Renner of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry and the Spectrum Health Systems board of directors wrote in his own op-ed in The Boston Globe June 4 about the many effective and safe addiction treatment options right here at home. Massachusetts has dedicated an incredible amount of resources to the issue and we’re continuing to make strides. While it’s only three months, confirmed and suspected opioid deaths in the first quarter of this year appear to be tracking about 10 percent lower than the prior year, according to state figures.

While recovering in balmy Florida may sound luxurious, being far away from one’s roots at such a vulnerable stage can also be detrimental to future sobriety.

It’s imperative to involve family and loved ones throughout every stage of addiction recovery. Not only will this help to mend potentially broken fences or address unresolved issues, it will strengthen and educate support systems for the still-challenging years ahead. It is also important to ease back into a new, sober life as slowly as possible, to avoid anxiety or triggers that may lead to relapse.

 

Addiction recovery providers in Massachusetts are generally reputable and accessible. There are varying levels of treatment, many covered by MassHealth, which can break down barriers to treatment for individuals of any economic status. Resources like the Massachusetts Substance Abuse Hotline and police-assisted programs, such as the Gloucester ANGEL Program and the Southbridge CARE Program, are available to individuals and their loved ones looking for help 24/7. Local and state officials, including Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. and Attorney General Maura Healey, and the state’s Bureau of Substance Abuse Services are working tirelessly to raise awareness, educate the community and fund support for this epidemic.

From devastation comes opportunity for these unscrupulous brokers. From desperation comes blind hope that these brokers prey upon. It is the responsibility of each of us to continue educating the community about the disease of addiction, and assist our loved ones down a safe path – right here in Massachusetts.

- Kurt Isaacson, of South Grafton, is president and CEO of Spectrum Health Systems Inc., which is based in Worcester and is the largest not-for-profit addictions recovery provider in Massachusetts for 48 years. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of New Haven and a bachelor’s in health services administration from the University of Arizona.