Last week I got a very interesting call on my cell phone at work. I did not recognize the number. It was a New York area code. I decided to answer it because during my 2-1/2-year-long investigation of corruption in the drug industry I have been getting calls from parents and other sources across the country.
A woman introduced herself and asked if I or a loved one had a problem with drugs or alcohol and would like help. I raised my eyebrows and silently chuckled. This is it, I thought. I finally got a call from a telemarketer for a drug treatment center.
I am an investigative reporter for a newspaper in South Florida – the epicenter of insurance fraud, patient brokering and telemarketing scams in the drug treatment industry. I am also a recovered alcoholic with nearly 19 years clean and sober.
What telemarketer in her right mind would call me, of all people, offering me help for a substance use disorder?
I knew what she would ask next.
“Do you have insurance?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is it through your job?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is it a PPO or HMO?” she asked.
“PPO,” I said, knowing I had said the magic letters that made her heart skip a beat.
Before I go any further with this story, I want to explain the rules and ethics that govern my reporting. I never lie or misrepresent who I am. Over the course of my investigation I could have gone undercover and called treatment centers and pretended to be an addict or parent of one looking for help. I could have set them up. I don’t do that.
I told the truth throughout this entire telemarketing episode. I am an alcoholic and I am always looking for help to keep me clean and sober. I work for a company that provides its employees with an amazing healthcare package.
She asked my name and I cringed. Jigs up, I thought. She is going to recognize my name.
“Christine Stapleton,” I said, expecting her to ask if I was that newspaper reporter who had been writing about corruption in the drug treatment industry.
She hadn’t a clue who I am. She went on to explain that she could help me if I wanted sobriety.
“When was the last time you had a drink?” she asked. I know from my investigation that telemarketers don’t ask this question out of concern for an alcoholic or addict’s well-being. They ask this question so they can pre-qualify you for treatment.
“Why do you need to know that?” I asked.
“To get you help,” she said.
“That’s kind of personal information,” I said. “I don’t know who you are or who you work for. I am not giving you that information.”
“Well,” she said, kind of snotty. “You must not really want help. I’m not going to waste my time.”
She hung up. I called her back but got a recorded message saying the number could not be reached.
I shrugged it off and went back to work. About five minutes later I got another call from a different number in a different area code. Charlie said he was sorry for the hung-up and wanted to help. We went through the same questions. I gave the same answers.
“Charlie,” I said. “You are a complete stranger. I don’t know what kind of training you have had in counseling addicts. I’m not going to give you personal information or any identifying information about myself, like my date or birth and insurance policy number.”
Charlie said he understood my privacy and security concerns but there was no need to worry, the call was being recorded for quality assurance purposes.
“What!” I said. “That’s illegal.”
“No, under the law we can do that,” Charlie insisted.
“Only if you notify me IN ADVANCE that the call will be recorded,” I said.
Charlie quickly changed the subject and asked about my policy. What company? What kind of coverage?
I told him I knew it covered drug and alcohol treatment because I knew of co-workers who had gone to treatment and the policy covered it.
“Well, that was for that person,” Charlie said. “The policy may have changed. The insurance company is going to want to know your circumstances. When was the last time you had a drink.”
“Charlie, I am not going to tell you that,” I said. The call ended. I called back Charlie’s number and the operator told me the number could not be reached.
I thought this entire episode was over. I was wrong.
I got ANOTHER call from a different person in a different state. She REALLY wanted to help me. This time I pressed her for the name of the company she worked for. She gave me a company name – based in South Florida – but said they do business using another name.
We went through the same questions. I gave the same answers. She explained that she, too, was a mother and had gotten clean and sober later in life. I asked the names of the treatment centers she represented. She said they were all over the country and they provided “door-to-door” service. She could help “arrange” my flights. I decided not to explain to her that inducing an addict to go to a particular treatment center with free or reduced travel services is illegal in Florida.
I asked if she could refer me to treatment centers in Florida. I wanted to looked at their websites, I said.
Let me stop here and explain how the scam works: Telemarketers work for specific treatment centers, sometimes a few, sometimes dozens. Treatment centers pay telemarketers a per-head fee based on what kind of insurance the addict has. The better the insurance, the more they pay.
Most telemarketers have no professional training in addiction. Often they are newly recovered addicts themselves. They know nothing about the treatment centers they are referring you to – what kind of care you will get, how long is treatment, how often you will be drug tested, if you will live in one of their halfway houses after treatment etc.
Sometimes these telemarketers will offer incentives – airfare, gift cards, free nail and hair services, gym memberships and on and on.
So, what is wrong with getting a commission for referring an addict to a drug treatment center? Commissions are a standard operating procedure in other industries. What’s the problem? Addicts are human beings, not widgets or time-shares. Substance-use disorders can be fatal. Where an addict gets treatment can be a life or death decision.
Back on the line, the recovered mother who got sober later in life really pushed me to go to a treatment center in central Florida. Upscale, she said. She gave me a call-back number and we said good-bye. I checked out the names of the treatment centers she said she worked with. One had closed, another couple I recognized immediately as shady. I checked out the company she said she worked for. Shady as well.
At this point I was getting annoyed. I went back to work and figured the episode was over.
It was not.
Later that night I got a call from a different number in a different state. I did not take the call. The man left a message.
He just wanted to check in, make sure I was alright.
I don’t know if they figured out who I was or just lost interest in me, but they never called back.
My investigation continues.