Good Rehab Advertising Vs. Disreputable Practices

Following the onset of the Opioid Epidemic, the number of untrustworthy companies cashing in on the $35 billion-dollar rehab industry closely trailed a rapid increase in addiction in the U.S. In recent years, rehab horror stories­–alleging everything from incompetence to outright maliciousness–have plagued the sector. Moreover, deceptive marketing techniques have contributed to several current barriers people commonly face when searching for addiction treatment. So, for the people suffering from addiction as well as their loved ones, knowing how to tell the difference between good rehab advertising and shady practices can be life-saving.

It can be hard enough for individuals suffering from addiction to find proper treatment due to fears of the stigma associated with getting help. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 23 million Americans have a substance use disorder. Yet, only a tenth of those in need of addiction treatment receive it.

Google and Facebook Ban Rehab Ads, Then Allow Vetted Advertisers

Today, most people turn first to the internet to search for help in battling addiction. However, misleading ads and unethical online business practices have led to dishonest businesses appearing higher in search results than legally-operating ones. The SEO (or search engine optimization) algorithms used by Google, for instance, allowed rehabs in California to appear at the top of results for “addiction treatment in Cleveland.” Several rehabs were found guilty of lying about their treatment programs, committing millions of dollars of insurance fraud, and paying for patients in schemes that mirrored human trafficking.

While quite a few treatment centers and marketers are honest and upfront, many others use deception and call-center scam tactics to get clients. The companies are united by their dependence on Google, some of them spending huge sums on ads to show up in the searches of desperate people with the right insurance.

- Cat Ferguson, The Verge, 2017

Following the release of an article by The Verge that revealed a litany of shady business practices­, Google and Facebook banned rehabs from buying advertising on their platforms. The ban was eventually lifted, given that rehabs attempting to buy ad space get LegitScript Addiction Treatment Provider certified. LegitScript, a company dedicated to making the internet a safer place for consumers, has a 19-point checklist with which rehabs must comply.

The checklist includes standards like:

  • Criminal background checks for key rehab ownership and staff
  • Resumes of rehab owners, business leadership, and treatment staff
  • Disclosure of all physical properties and corporate entities
  • List medications and addiction treatment therapies or programs

For a reported $995 upfront and $1,995 annually, rehabs submit background and business information and proof of adherence to state and federal regulations to LegitScript for verification. After receiving LegitScript verification, rehabs can apply to buy ad space from Google at the top of search results or from Facebook in various spaces on its platforms.

To avoid falling victim to the 5 most common types of advertising misinformation, watch out for the warning signs below.

5 Shady Rehab Marketing Techniques

1. Pushing treatment therapies that aren’t backed by science.

With the expansion of the Affordable Care Act, addiction is now categorized as a complex condition and brain disease. As such, its treatment should follow the guidelines of well-researched, proven studies on addiction. Rehabs that promote an “enhanced sense of well-being” in lieu of medical treatment for chronic disease are failing to properly treat an individual’s illness. Equine, exercise, and nature therapy are potentially beneficial amenities, but should not form the basis of a certified addiction treatment program. One-on-one counseling with a medical professional (and medication if necessary) have been shown to have the greatest effect on rehabilitation.

2. Rehab sites that don’t list their treatment programs or location.

If a rehab website doesn’t detail their treatment therapy information and the addiction treatment medications they’re licensed to provide, be on guard. These sites may be lead generators–not rehabs–that take payment in return for selling lists of potential clients and their contact information. Some lead generators have misled callers about rehab locations­ or treatment services–prohibited by Florida law HB 807, though not all states have adopted such a law. Though not illegal, lead generation becomes unethical when sites funnel people into the rehabs that pay them instead of treatment available for the individual. Lead generators have come under intense scrutiny recently for handing callers over to “patient brokers.”

3. Offers to pay for travel, insurance premiums, cigarettes, or free rent at “sober living” homes.

Beware if a center offers to pay your flight, set you up with “special” insurance at no cost to you, or pay your rent at a sober home if you attend a particular treatment program. In some states, these types of payments are illegal and known as inducements (subject to Anti-Kickback Statutes). Some rehabs circumvent this by making people sign promissory notes to pay them back. Some rehabs that have paid for a client’s insurance premiums were later caught disproportionately billing that insurance for tens of thousands more each month.

4. Acceptance into a treatment program without a detailed survey beforehand.

Addiction is a complex mental and medical disease. Accordingly, proper addiction treatment should be tailored to the individual’s needs (just like proper cancer treatment). If a rehab doesn’t get your medical background and history of substance abuse prior to accepting you into treatment, it’s likely their treatment is one-type-fits-all and may not be a good match for you.

5. Boasting about high treatment success rates.

Rehab center advertisements that brag of “curing” patients should be an immediate red flag. Addiction is also a chronic disease, meaning recovery is a lifelong process. Self-reported success rates may not be the most trustworthy, and how some rehabs track this data has been criticized by researchers. In reality, at least 40-60% of people relapse at least once in their lifetime following rehab.

5 Good Rehab Advertising Practices

1. Showcasing medically-trained and licensed doctors and staff.

Currently, there is no training requirement for an individual to label his or herself an addiction counselor. Yet, social workers and psychologists require 3 to 8 years of education followed by years of on-the-job training to become licensed. Good rehabs showcase their staffs’ medical licensure and certifications. It’s also a good sign if their physicians or associates are members of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

2. Emphasizing individual counseling sessions with trained specialists.

When looking for a rehab, make sure the rehab’s claims of individualized care mean more than choosing from one of multiple, pre-existing treatment plans.

The ability to choose one lecture series over another, or horses over swimming, is not individualized treatment.

- Lance Doses, M.D., Psychology Today, 2014

Also, “group therapy only” models are not likely to allow the individual enough time to focus on their personal recovery.

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3. Offer flexible lengths of stay/program length.

There is no evidence that people need to attend rehab for a set number of days to recover. Everyone’s addiction is different and will require different treatment modalities and time. Your stay in rehab should be determined by a medical professional and reassessed routinely throughout your time there–that is, the same consideration that’s given to every other medical hospitalization.

4. Can treat co-occurring mental disorders or comorbid diseases.

Many people with mental illness (such as chronic depression or anxiety) develop substance use disorders, and in some cases vice versa. Furthermore, substance abuse can result in contraction of diseases like Hepatitis C or HIV. Rehabs that can handle these types of medical needs are more likely to be state certified health providers.

5. Allow Medicaid and Medicare insurance.

Some private rehabs don’t allow Medicaid or Medicare insurance as payment (ads will specify: No Medicaid/Medicare) because of the extra level of regulations that come with providing government-funded care. For instance, inducements (such as paid travel and free rent) are prohibited to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Be cautious, request tours, and ask plenty of questions from rehabs that require payment through “Private Insurance Only” ads.

Finding The Right Rehab For You

There is no one-size-fits-all rehab center or addiction treatment program. Every individual entering recovery should be treated as such and cared for by a team of well-trained medical professionals. If you need more information about finding rehab, contact a treatment provider today.

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Destiny Bezrutczyk

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  • Destiny Bezrutczyk is a Digital Content Writer from west Iowa. She earned a Bachelor’s in English Language and Literature from Texas Tech University. After working as a freelance script and blog writer, she began writing content for tech startups. Maintaining a passion for words, she took on a variety of projects where her writing could help people (especially those battling mental health and substance use disorders).

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