National Legislative Update
On March 22, 2017, a Capitol Hill forum addressed the issue of recovery housing. Sponsored in part by CCAPP and hosted by Unite to Face Addiction, leaders from the community presented compelling evidence as to why Congress should pay attention to this important component of recovery. Several members of Congress spoke at the event, including the cosponsors of the landmark CARA legislation, Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) as well as Representative Brett Tonko (D-NY), who is cochair of the House Addiction and Recovery Caucus. Recovery housing has never received much attention on Capitol Hill, let alone been the subject of legislation. Yet with the industry growing, coupled with recent reports of criminal activity on behalf of those charged with the care of people in recovery, lawmakers are beginning to take interest.
Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) once again introduced legislation that seeks to interfere with the growth and progress of sober living facilities. He introduced HR 472, the Safe Recovery and Community Empowerment Act (2016), late in the 114th Congress, where it died in committee.
This bill seeks to amend the Fair Housing Act, to provide that nothing in federal law may prohibit a local, state or federal government body from “requiring a reasonable minimum distance between residential recovery facilities within a particular area zoned for residential housing, if such requirement is necessary to preserve the residential character of the area” (Safe Recovery and Community Empowerment Act, 2016). It also requires that “such a facility obtain an operating license or use permit or satisfy a set of consumer protection standards, which may include a maximum capacity requirement” (Safe Recovery and Community Empowerment Act, 2016). A residential recovery facility is defined as “a residence that provides housing to individuals in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction with the promise of providing a clean and sober environment in return for direct or indirect payment to an owner, operator, or compensated staff person” (Safe Recovery and Community Empowerment Act, 2016).
It goes on to declare that
Facilities receiving payments from a federal health care program, or via private insurance purchased on a federal exchange or federally subsidized, for either housing, recovery services or testing or monitoring for drugs or alcohol must ensure that residents: (1) are provided a safe living environment completely free from illicit drugs, alcohol, firearms, harassment, abuse or harm and (2) live in a licensed or registered residence that has committed to following standards approved by states and localities (Safe Recovery and Community Empowerment Act, 2016).
The language of the bill is quite vague, not defining “minimum distance” or “necessary to preserve the residential character of an area.” It also does not mention how purchasing “private insurance” is to be achieved.
Rep. Issa drafted the bill after residents in his districts demanded he act on the issue at a forum in his district last fall (Ritchie, 2016). The bill in its current form faces an uphill climb. Not only are several organizations representing the recovery community opposed to it, but in addition, an attempted amendment to the Fair Housing Act is almost certain to be met with fierce resistance.
The Senate has not introduced any similar legislation, and is taking what appears to be a more measured approach. In June of 2016, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), asking them to conduct a review of federal and state oversight of sober living homes (Warren, Hatch, & Rubio, 2016). Specifically, the Senators had four questions for GAO:
- “How many sober living homes are there in the United States? How many individuals do they serve and what are the characteristics of this population?”
- “How are sober living homes regulated at the federal, state, and local level?
- “What is the range of services offered by sober living homes? Are sober living homes being used to expand the available resources to support recovery from substance use disorder? What is known about the effectiveness of services offered through sober living homes?”
- “How do sober living homes and their patients interact with Medicaid and other federally funded healthcare programs? What impact does this have on Medicaid costs and on the effectiveness of Medicaid-funded drug and alcohol-abuse treatment programs?”
The senators’ letter states, “Sober living homes can be an effective recovery service for those suffering from substance use disorder, but little is known about how this cottage industry functions overall. Additional information about the sober living homes will help us to provide proper oversight to ensure that individuals with substance abuse disorders are receiving the care they need” (Warren, Hatch, & Rubio, 2016).
Senator Rubio’s interest stems from incidents in South Florida, where in late 2016 six people were charged with fraud after allowing residents in sober living houses to use drugs, in addition to committing insurance fraud (Clary & Swisher, 2016). Senator Murphy joined the letter after a number of overdoses were reported at sober living facilities across Connecticut in February.
It remains to be seen how long the issue of sober living can hold the interest of Congress. Most of the action taken to date by congress has been reactive, not proactive. The federal government can have an impact on recovery residences via encouragement of best practices and continued research. Federal regulations, however, appear to be a very long way off.
Clary, M., & Swisher, S. (2016). Feds charge six in South Florida sober home fraud scheme. The Sun Sentinel. Retrieved from http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/palm-beach/fl-fbi-sober-home-arrests-20161221-story.html
Ritchie, E. I. (2016). Sober-living homes forum attracts three hundred in San Clemente. The Orange County Register. Retrieved from http://www.ocregister.com/2016/09/03/sober-living-homes-forum-attracts-300-in-san-clemente/
Safe Recovery and Community Empowerment Act, HR 472, 114th Cong. (2016).
Warren, E., Hatch, O., & Rubio, M. (2016). Letter to Mr. Gene L. Dodaro, comptroller general of the United States. Retrieved from https://www.warren.senate.gov/files/documents/2016-6-2_Letter_to_GAO_on_sober_living_homes.pdf