How One Doctor Stumbled Upon The 'Underbelly' of The Rehab Industry

By Victoria Kim 01/09/18

An innocent phone call for a presentation led to an investigation into the realm of sketchy rehab referral services for one Palm Beach psychologist.

The doctor making a "stop" gesture with his hand

People in need of addiction help can pick up the phone and call a free helpline, but as we’ve discovered about much of the addiction treatment industry, some of these rehab referral services have amounted to little more than “telemarketers to the addicted,” according to the New York Times, that prioritize profits over patients.

Dr. Alan Goodwin has three decades’ worth of experience working with people in need of addiction help. This experience has helped the Palm Beach, Florida-based psychologist and self-described “aging activist” investigate the realm of sketchy rehab referral services.

Goodwin would create different personas when he would call these phone numbers and pretend to seek addiction treatment, drawing from his understanding of his past patients. His made-up personas included a pot-smoking college student, or a millionaire calling to seek help for his autistic son.

Goodwin's goal was to uncover the people who were manning these helplines, these “lead generators” who made money off of connecting patients to rehabs that may not necessarily be the right fit for them. Goodwin concluded: “What I saw was pure opportunism.”

One rehab referral service interviewed by the Times maintained the legitimacy of their business, which works by routing calls to a “rotating list” of rehab clinics that have paid in advance to “receive a set number of calls per month.” 

According to a representative of the company, rehab clinics pay up to $50 for each call they receive from a potential patient, regardless of whether they enroll in treatment.

Ben Cort, a rehab clinic consultant, has also done his own research on lead generators, and criticizes the inherent flaws in their business model. “Callers who are patients are not simple commodities,” he said to the Times. “When no thought is given to appropriate referrals based on a patient’s specific needs it demonstrates either a lack of understanding or a callousness.”

The lucrative opportunities of the addiction treatment industry have attracted such people, as Cort said, who either lack the know-how or the care for how to help a person trying to overcome substance use disorder. Many of them simply take advantage for the profits.

“We have to constantly monitor the web for fake versions of our clients’ websites. Fake social media reviews. Fake Facebook profiles,” said one rep from a Maryland marketing firm. “We have worked with 28 different industries and we have never had to play more defense than we do in addiction treatment.”

This month, Google extended its recent ban on rehab advertising to the UK.

The tech company explained its decision to stop selling ads that would appear on its search page for a number of addiction-related search terms including “addiction treatment” and “rehabs near me” to The Verge last September: “We found a number of misleading experiences among rehabilitating treatment centers that led to our decision… to restrict ads in this category.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr