How Should the Industry Respond to John Oliver's Expose?


John Oliver aired a devastating expose of the addiction treatment industry Sunday night on his show Last Week Tonight.  As of this morning, it has been viewed 3.4 million times.  If you haven’t seen it, you need to spend the next 20 minutes watching it in its entirety:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWQiXv0sn9Y

The reason Oliver’s show is so devastating is that it rings true.  Charlatans have been getting rich by preying on people with drug and alcohol addictions and the families who love them.  Sleazy marketers have been rerouting the names, phone numbers and website URLs of legitimate treatment centers to their underground call centers and then directing the desperate callers to the highest bidder.  And the vast majority of addiction treatment facilities haven’t been measuring the percentage of their clients who remain in recovery one year post-treatment, let alone sharing this information with consumers.

My family has lived this.  Ten years ago, my beloved daughter was forced to drop out of college due to alcoholism.  Once we finally recognized that she was drinking to lethal levels day after day, we were thrown into the very scary, totally opaque world of addiction treatment. 

Throughout the next 5 years, we were repeatedly forced to make life-and-death decisions about what treatment programs to send our daughter to based solely on phone calls with people who sounded nice and promised that their program was better than the rest.  Along the way, we shelled out close to $200,000 for residential and outpatient treatment programs, sober living homes, therapists, family programs, etc. 

We are the fortunate ones.  Through sheer dumb luck and several coincidences too amazing to believe, the treatment programs we learned about in each of our daughter’s times of crisis were universally excellent.  As a result, she was able to completely turn her life around and recently celebrated five years of sobriety.

As overdose deaths climb ever higher, finding effective treatment for the horrific disease of addiction shouldn’t be a matter of luck.  Three years ago, I created an online database where people could search for addiction treatment programs based upon a variety of criteria, and the programs with the best long-term success rates appear at the top of the list of suggested programs.  Unlike other search sites, most of which are lead generation sites in disguise, www.conquer-addiction.org doesn’t even collect information about the people searching its site, let alone sell it.  Nor does it accept advertising.

The Conquer Addiction website was launched in the fall of 2015 as a labor of love.  Unfortunately, we could find only five treatment centers in the entire United States who were tracking their one-year post-treatment outcomes in a verifiable way and would allow us to share their results!

Deeply disappointed, I put Conquer Addiction on hold and started Vista Research Group, Inc. to help the many excellent treatment centers who understand the need for transparency and accountability to start accurately and cost-effectively measuring their outcomes.

After years of bad press, it feels like the addiction treatment industry is finally ready to take strong action to weed out the bad actors.  At the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) annual conference this week, the interest in cleaning up the industry was palpable.  Over the last year, NAATP has developed a strong code of ethics, worked with Google to develop an advertising certification procedure that excludes those using unscrupulous marketing practices, and kicked a number of treatment programs out of its membership ranks.

The last major unaddressed need is to provide consumers with an unbiased way to identify those treatment programs which meet their needs with the best verified long-term success rates.  I’ve always intended to relaunch Conquer Addiction and start promoting it to consumers when enough excellent treatment centers were ready to be transparent about their outcomes and pricing.  Is now the time?

Here’s how Conquer Addiction works.  Any residential, PHP or outpatient addiction or eating disorder treatment program can register to be listed on the site at no cost by filling out this survey, which asks for information such as the type of care the center provides, location(s), contact info, pricing, insurances accepted, and accreditations (e.g., Joint Commission, CARF, NAATP).   Treatment centers who submit a post-treatment outcomes research report from a reputable research firm (or, at our Board’s discretion, from an internal research team following statistically-valid research protocols), will be awarded a success rating of between 2 to 5 stars based upon these standards.   Because so many of the most reputable programs have just begun tracking their outcomes, Conquer Addiction awards 3 stars to those programs who can prove they’ve hired a research firm to do outcomes research, but for whom it is too soon to have results. 

I believe strongly that both consumers and the many addiction treatment programs providing excellent treatment need an independent site that reports outcomes results.  However, this is only worth doing if a substantial number of treatment centers are ready to take this step. 

What do you think?  Is your treatment center interested in being listed on Conquer Addiction?  If we get enough positive response from respected treatment providers, I will convert Conquer Addiction, Inc. into a non-profit, recruit a strong Board of Directors, and start raising donations to promote the message that consumers can use unbiased quality metrics to find excellent addiction treatment programs that meet their needs.  Please email me your thoughts and suggestions.