Privatized Addiction Treatment: Feeding Off the Sick and Suffering

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June 4, 2015
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August 13, 2015

Privatized Addiction Treatment: Feeding Off the Sick and Suffering

podcast-icon Listen to: Feeding Off The Sick And Suffering
Read by: Rebecca Balko
Length: 12:42

A few weeks ago I stopped at a local gas station to fill up and went in to purchase a soda. Walking over to the register I saw working behind the counter, a young woman that I’ve made small talk with several times in the past. That day I had on my “work shirt”, which is a green polo with the name of the treatment center I work for (The Watershed Addiction Treatment Programs), my department and my name on it. We chatted for a bit and I noticed her looking at my shirt, but with a strange look on her face. I asked her, “What?”– To which she said, “I noticed you work for that place. It must be really hard doing that.”

Now this is not an unusual comment to receive from someone who finds out I work in addiction treatment. I think it falls under other occupations like ER workers, paramedics, police, fireman, teachers, etc… where people will often say that “they can’t imaging doing that kind of work on a daily basis”. So of course, I actually thought that was what this young woman was saying. But just as I began to reply by saying, “Well, I lo…”, she interjected and said, “I mean, to work for a place that makes its money feeding off the sick and suffering like that must be hard. I guess everybody has to make a living though.”

I must admit, internally I was blowing a fuse ~ If I was a teapot there would have most definitely been a whistle blowing! I could feel my ears getting hot, my chest tighten somewhat and a slight sense of dizziness washing over me – which often happens when I’m angry and attempting to not show it. Saying a quick silent prayer in my own head to be given calm and wisdom, I listened as she went on to tell me how “…terrible it is for treatment centers to take advantage of sick people who are unfortunate and hurting that way”. Once she was finished we had a brief moment where neither of us spoke a word and just stood silently, staring eyeball to eyeball.

I then asked her, “So do you think that the Cancer Centers of America are feeding off the sick and suffering cancer patients? How about places that treat people with MS or Diabetes? For that matter, how about Emergency Rooms, hospitals and doctors offices? All of them are treating sick, suffering and unfortunate people ~ are they feeding off of them?” To which she replied, “That’s different”. I then asked, “In what way is it different? People come to them asking for and in need of help, to receive the needed care to treat what has made them sick. After having received that treatment, they later receive a bill for services rendered. If no one was ever billed….there would be no services in the calabar and convenience that they desired.” She then said, “Well I didn’t think about it like that, BUT what about people who don’t have insurance or money? What about them? You all don’t even care about them, right?”

Feeling myself once again struggling with the impulse to react defensively to the implication being made by this woman, (knowing that in fact my employer actually has a FULL TIME STAFF of people who’s job is to assist all those people reaching out for help that are unable to come to us for treatment, to find treatment in their area that they can go to, as opposed to simply throwing out a toll free number and leaving it to them to find help elsewhere on their own), I replied to her, “Well I actually didn’t have insurance or money when I went to treatment and I was able to get help. There are plenty of places that people can go to receive treatment services, despite their financial situation. However, when they are not privatized, generally there are waiting lists which can be very long, there is not the same “one stop shop conveniences” where doctors, nursing staff, psychiatrists, etc… are readily available on property, and on average the facilities are not nearly as aesthetically nice. BUT anyone who wants help can get help.” She went on to share with me her personal experience with detox from her drug of choice and we said our goodbyes.

The conversation was interesting because I found myself speaking from a side of the fence that I had not been on prior to 2006. As I drove away I realized that I had once felt just like this woman did. In fact I was extremely disparaging of “privatized treatment”, having worked in non-profit for the 17 years prior. (Not that I had any real knowledge of privatized treatment that I was basing my opinion on…it was stemming more from a sense of arrogance and self righteousness to be quite honest about it.) There is definitely a strange thing that seems to occur predominately amongst people in recovery regarding the chemical addiction treatment field, in that there is a common idea that for some reason the programs that provide treatment services AND the people that work within the facilities should make as little profit/income as possible. Among some, there is even the idea that there should be no profit at all – including any staff salary.

Having worked in non-profit for so long, I ran into this line of thinking regularly. More times than I can count I had people in recovery from addictions say to me things like, “I just think it is really wrong for people to have to pay to get sober”; “I think that a suffering addict should be able to ask for help and get it – not be left to die because of a waiting list!”; “You know, you’re not really practicing recovery because you are accepting a pay check to help people.” Even among the patients, extremely common remarks, (which by the way are equally common in privatized treatment), were things like, “You guys are just in it for the money!”, “They are making a killing on the money they are making off of us!”, “You people should be ashamed for taking what little money I have”, etc… (Keeping in mind that at the particular facility I was at, a person was only responsible for paying 25% of their earned income, not exceeding $55 a week – for treatment services, housing and food! – YET the cry from patients of unfairness, lack of caring & greed of the treatment facility was the same as I hear today in the world of privatized treatment.

Reflecting on that, two things stick out prominently to me:

The first is the belief that treatment centers, (whether privatized or non-profit), should not charge people for services – that those services should somehow magically ~ just be provided. Of course, if this were the case, there would be no treatment centers at all. In order to have a staff, meals, power, water and housing…money is needed. I can assure anyone who might be thinking right now – “Well the government could provide that”…that no facility of any moderate to large capacity could operate solely on government assistance. So…where is that money going to come from? It, (like any other business or service provider), comes from people paying for services that they have received. Making that payment does several things: (1) It enables addicts and alcoholics to take responsibility for their own livesand to know that the life of “hand outs” is OVER (2) It enables the very facility where they were able to receive help, to continue to keep its doors open and (3) It makes way for the next person to receive help. This is true whether someone is in a non profit or privatized facility.

The second is my own observation made over the years. I can say absolutely and conclusively, without ANY exaggeration ~ that in the 22 years of working in addiction treatment and as a recovering person who had multiple treatment experiences….NOT ONE TIME have I EVER heard ANYONE talk about their former drug dealer, liquor store owner, night club owner or bar tender in the way that they do the treatment programs and staff that offered and provided them services.

Think about it a minute…How much money did the provider of the drugs or alcohol receive over the course of an addicts active use? Did that provider care about the addict/alcoholic’s life or future? Did the many OTHER financial needs in that addict/alcoholics life matter to the person selling them their DOC? The answer is a resounding “NO!” In fact, those individuals and industries that were providing the drugs and/or booze to the addicts and alcoholics contributed absolutely NOTHING to the well being of the recipients, their families, employers or their communities…and yet…NOT A WORD AGAINST THEM have I EVER heard spoken. While on the other hand, the very industry and staff, whose sole purpose and function is to stabilize addicts and alcoholics from their withdrawals and provide them with education about the “problem, the solution and where to go from treatment to utilize the solution and grow in their recovery”… The industry who works to educate families and provide support services to them ~~ Now THAT is who you will hear ALL the negative railing about.

Interesting isn’t it? As if those who contributed to the destruction of lives, families, jobs and communities somehow becomes irrelevant and gets a “pass”? But it’s really not so bizarre…because the disease of addiction is cunning, baffling and powerful – Even when sober, it can distort our perceptions, causing us to have difficulty differentiating the true from the false. The truth is, there are worlds of people that will NEVER go or even consider the thought of going to non-profit or state funded facilities for treatment. There are worlds of people that will NEVER think of or consider going to the 12-step community for help for one reason or another…BUT those very same people, (who without help are doomed to jails, institutions and death), WILL consider going to a privatized treatment center. So this is really the question…Would it be better to have a place for all those people to be able to come to and have a chance at recovery and a life? OR… Would it be better to have no privatized treatment and leave that group of people to just die?

In closing:  Am I saying that ALL privatized or non profit treatment centers are there out of a love for addicts and alcoholics? NO Am I saying that ALL of the investors and/or staff are there out of love for the addicts and alcoholics? NO (On a personal note: I don’t necessarily think that my surgeon cared particularly about my private life, but he did care about providing me a good service – and quite frankly… I was there for the service. ) But what I AM saying is that there is a BIGGER picture, and that is of preventing needless suffering and death in this world of ours due to untreated addiction. In order to do that there is a need for ALL TYPES of places to receive treatment services from, because after all, there are ALL TYPES of people who need that help.

© 2012- 2015 Rebecca Balko