Despite trying to clean up its act, the addiction treatment industry (also known as the “rehab industry”) remains a cesspool of bad marketing by too many companies to count. In July, industry experts tried to paint a different picture to a U.S. House of Representatives committee, suggesting that self-regulation was possible.
Yet in just a cursory look at some of the big players who are guilty, in my opinion, of deceptive marketing practices, nothing has really changed. And the industry association who believes they can self-police its membership is missing some of the biggest players in its membership, meaning its policies and regulations don’t apply to those who are the most guilty of the problematic marketing behaviors.
The addiction treatment industry is big money, despite the dearth of research showing that the inpatient treatment model for addiction recovery is effective or results in better outcomes than outpatient alone. Because virtually everyone who has health insurance in America has access to their own “free 30 days” of inpatient addiction treatment, the industry is focused on getting as many people through their doors as possible. Sometimes without regard for whether (a) the person actually would benefit from inpatient (vs outpatient) addiction treatment and (b) whether the person even has a bona fide addiction.
Addiction Treatment’s Poor Online Marketing Record
I first noted the significant problems with the addiction treatment system in America back in 2013 (nothing has changed significantly from when I wrote that article). Then in 2016, I analyzed the seedy underbelly of addiction treatment centers’ online marketing efforts. That article was based off an earlier example of how problematic — and purposely misleading — the addiction treatment system’s marketing efforts are.
So has anything really changed in the past 3 or 4 years? Not really.
According to a news report about the Washington committee meeting, “the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) updated its code of ethics for 2018 and began enforcing member compliance on Jan. 1.”
“According to NAATP Executive Director Marvin Ventrell, two dozen organizations comprised of nearly 100 facilities have been excluded from membership this year because they weren’t able to meet the criteria.”
The problem, of course, is that big companies like American Addiction Centers, Inc. and Freedom Healthcare of America LLC aren’t members. So if a company isn’t a member of a professional organization, their rules and ethics don’t apply to them.
And we can immediately see why Freedom Healthcare of America, for instance, wouldn’t want to be a member and follow the Code of Ethics for the industry. This principle is especially problematic for these companies:
B. Deceptive Advertising or Marketing Practices
[…] Banners and borders on websites that utilize a web directory’s call center number, especially when conveying an appearance of being a consultant or independent specialist, are prohibited.
So how do these companies do with their online marketing practices?
Still Actively Deceiving Users
This is what a directory entry on one of Freedom Healthcare of America’s websites, drugrehab.org, looked like just last year:
What’s the most prominent phone number on this page? See the problem there?
Hazelden did too. They got so sick of dealing with deceptive marketing practices of this nature in the industry, they just filed a lawsuit against Freedom Healthcare and another addiction treatment center company, Addiction Enders.
Neither company appears to be a member of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers trade organization. Meaning there is no sanctions possible from that group.
Today’s version of that same page doesn’t look much better, even with the lawsuit filed:
There’s still just one really prominent number on that page… And it doesn’t belong to Hazelden. But most unsuspecting visitors to this site would never know that. And if you fill out that form right next to Hazelden’s entry? It doesn’t go to Hazelden — it goes to Freedom Healthcare.
Other companies don’t fare much better. Mental Help Net — with its 1.1 million monthly visitors — still throws up its referral number (that refers people to American Addiction Centers’ or their sponsors’ facilities) in a big bold banner that remains at the top of the page no matter what content you are viewing:
To be fair, American Addiction Centers’ main website, rehabs.com, does prominently list other companies’ phone numbers and contact information in their database. But for years, rehabs.com also didn’t prominently display or note that it was owned by American Addiction Centers, likely leading hundreds of thousands of visitors to believe that it was just an independent directory of addiction treatment facilities.
Our shameless friend Sean Callahan, who we featured in our 2016 article, is still apparently running his network of unbranded sites for treatment centers in Florida. While some of the domains we listed in that article have been taken offline, many others remain. A few new ones (to us, anyways) have also been added to his empire.
Needless to say, Sean’s organizations don’t appear to be members of NAATP either. Meaning there is little industry recourse to stop his deceptive marketing practices.
A Federal Solution is Needed
Because of these examples — and trust me when I tell you that this is just the tip of the iceberg — I don’t see any reasonable way that the industry can police itself. Too many players in the industry have demonstrated throughout the years the extent they will go to drive patients to their facilities. While NAATP is a well-meaning organization and their Code of Ethics is a good start, it’s clear it won’t be enough.
Furthermore, NAATP has made it pretty clear they don’t really want to do any heavy-lifting on policing their own ethics code. They suggest people get in touch with the company violating their code first, then try and navigate the bureaucracy of one of the accrediting bodies (lol!), THEN contact their state licensing agency, and THEN contact the Better Business Bureau. Only after you’ve done all of that does NAATP want to take a look at your complaint. This is funny, because both the NAATP and its members know few people have the time, energy, or ability to go through all those steps in order to get a company to stop being unethical in their marketing practices.
That’s why a federal solution is needed. Only an oversight and policing organization like the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Trade Commission can put a halt to these ongoing deceptive marketing practices by addiction treatment companies. Millions of Americans are being impacted by these practices every year, just to line the pockets of a few company’s owners and shareholders. This has got to stop.
The industry, of course, has only itself to blame. It allowed these deceptive online marketing practices to bloom over many, many years, turning a blind eye to the harm they’ve caused to unsuspecting people looking for objective, independent information about addiction treatment centers. It is far too late to pretend none of that happened or to think that these problematic behaviors are just going to go away on their own.