In California, a bill giving local governments more control over “sober living homes” that have been popping in across the state is gaining momentum. But the bill is not without controversy.

The legislation, known as the Safe Recovery and Community Empowerment Act (H.R. 6070) was introduced by California native Darrell Issa (R) in the House of Representatives last week. The legislation is meant to “fix” the Fair Housing Act to allow local governments to have oversight over sober living houses.  The press release on Issa’s website says the bill was introduced to “manage the exponential growth of sober living homes or their ability to ensure the facilities are providing the safe environment that is necessary for those in recovery to overcome addiction, as well as for those living in the surrounding communities.” (You can read the entirety of the bill here.) Citing fraud and sub-standard treatment facilities, the bill is meant to address many problems perceived by communities regarding sober facilities.

Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett, writing on behalf of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, thanked Issa for introducing the legislation and expressed the Board’s support.  “The proliferation of sober living homes in Orange County has created concerns over the impacts on surrounding neighborhoods resulting from overconcentration and the challenges that federal, state and local governments face with establishing requirements and standards,” the Chairwoman Bartlett said. “This measure would provide local governments with the tools to develop oversight of sober living homes, which will benefit the residents of sober living homes and the community they reside in. For these reasons, the Orange County Board of Supervisors is on record supporting H.R. 6070.”

Sober Homes Bill: A Not In My Backyard Approach?

It’s understandable that communities would like the ability to police what they consider institutions in their area, and we’ve been down this way before. Who wants a homeless shelter, a mental health clinic, or a group of self-admitted addicts living in their backyard?

It’s a fact of everyday life that addiction, in all its forms, is stigmatized. Communities in California are definitely no exception when it comes to places that have been touched by the current opioid epidemic.

One of the reasons listed in Issa’s press release for the bill is the intent to “Enable sober home zoning to be enforced only if necessary to preserve the residential character of communities and if it allows at least some sober homes to be located within a particular area.” Keeping recovering addicts out of certain neighborhoods while giving communities the ability to judge which the sober living homes are conducive to recovery gives a wide berth of powers to governments. If the current opioid epidemic is an indication of anything, it’s that government and public health departments are anything but well-versed in the needs of the addicted population. The term “sober home” seems open to interpretation, which could mean that the term could refer to people new to recovery or with months or years clean.

While it’s likely that communities will have to hire experts on addiction and recovery if the bill passes, it’s not clear why certain communities will be exempt from having sober homes. Will there be a way to prevent discrimination based on race or religion, too? It’s not clear how sober homes will defined or how their success will be judged. Addiction often involves relapse, no facility or home can prevent the process or guarantee success. While meaning well, the bill could set easily set the stage for legislating addiction-related facilities out of certain communities. The bill, effectively, could close doors based on stigma or perception alone.

The bill also requires “sober homes receiving payments or reimbursements for housing or drug testing services from Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, or via private insurance purchased on an exchange to meet a set of standards and to provide residents with a safe and sober living environment that is completely free from illegal drugs, alcohol, abuse, and harm.”
It seems the insurance policies have decided to prevent fraud and abuse in their own way. We recently heard from an insider source that Anthem policies offered on the Exchange will no longer be offering out-of-network coverage. Healthnet policies is also implementing this decision. This will be true for all individual policies, but those with group policies won’t be affected.

With limited options, more addicts wanting to recover will be put on a wait list as their healthcare providers struggle to provide enough beds. In the midst of an addiction epidemic, there has to be a better way to regulate recovery facilities and weaken their ability to provide lifesaving services.

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