Florida is not new to scams when it comes to people trying to make a few quick bucks in the treatment industry. However, a doctor’s criminal background is helping to show just how lax treatment regulations can be.

Last November, at least six people involved in sober home management were arrested on charges stemming from what police called a patient brokering scheme. Similar to six other cases that emerged in November, the scheme allegedly involved individuals to  pay addicts to live in a sober home with no oversight, and sometimes squalid conditions. Insurance companies paid for the “treatment”, even though many of the addicts seeking help continued to use.

With a plethora of high-profile cases arising in Florida highlighting a lack of oversight and regulations, it appears that treatment and recovery businesses in Florida that are attracting criminals and misconduct.

The Palm Beach Post recently discovered that Dr. Donald Willems, one of the people arrested back in November had a long history with addiction and recovery — but he started in the trade as a “pill mill” doctor. In fact, the doctor had a criminal history when he signed up to work with the sober home, but no red flags were raised. An osteopathic physician at the time, he readily confessed to investigators that he signed blank prescriptions for powerful opioids such as oxycodone and even let one of his office staff pre-fill out prescriptions for patients he’d  never seen. This operation resulted in eight criminal charges , including racketeering and illegally providing oxycodone, but even with the pending trial, Willems was arrested again Dec. 21, allegedly part of an insurance fraud scheme orchestrated by treatment center operator Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman.

So how did a doctor who is facing charges for handing out oxycodone prescriptions like candy get approved to help run a treatment facility? Despite the arrest of Dr. Willems, he was able to become a part of a sober home facility, had access to patients and even the ability to prescribe drugs for them. The Department of Health has no background information on the doctor, and did not mention any actions against him until January 2016, three years after criminal charges were filed.

No sanctions have been filed to date in the insurance fraud case, either, leaving many people to shrug and wonder just whose responsibility it is to blacklist doctors. Most people in recovery would agree, however, that a doctor facing charges for essentially drug dealing (and yes, in pill mills, many of the drugs go straight to the street) isn’t the right person to supervise a recovery center.

The primary issue is that Florida law has yet to catch up with the realities of fraud and the machine that supplies the world with addiction. In fact, state law doesn’t require that a doctor tell the department they are arrested — only when there is a conviction. A savvy doctor can easily drag a court case out for years, and then the Department of Health may act after investigating. The action the department can take? In some cases, it may file a formal disciplinary charge seeking disciplinary sanctions. The board overseeing the profession can also make a decision on sanctions based on the administrative complaint.

There are better options on a federal level, however. When doctors are arrested, they may simply give up the DEA privileges after an arrest. That’s what Dr. Willems chose to do. The DEA actually keeps a list of doctors that can no longer prescribe narcotics. One step towards curbing the fraud would be to require actual background checks of treatment center employees. Legislators, however, have been hesitant to write any laws requiring these checks for facilities, but hopefully things will change as these cases get more publicity and go to court.

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