Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, August 8, 2016
State: Voluntary certification process for recovery homes moving forward
Posted July 20, 2016
Recovery house residents prepare a meal
Pennsylvania soon could join a handful of states in implementing voluntary certification for recovery houses — a controversial and unregulated segment of the housing industry catering to former substance abusers seeking long-term sobriety.
At the end of the public comment period, the department will complete its final internal review and announce the final standards as well as the state agency responsible for implementing and overseeing the certification, DDAP spokesman Jason Alexander said. Department leaders anticipate the certification process will be finalized before the end of this year and are confident the regulations can be implemented without formal legislation.
“Laying the groundwork for a process that will affect tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians for years to come must be done smartly and strategically," DDAP Secretary Gary Tennis said. "We are committed to taking great care to develop a sound, well-thought out policy that best serves all the members of our communities, and this task force has done that.”
Pennsylvania, like most states, currently has no operating standards, employee training requirements or review process for recovery homes, whose residents are protected from discrimination under federal housing and disability laws, making regulating them difficult, local and state officials said. The lack of oversight has made it difficult for families, recovering addicts and local officials to know much about recovery houses including where they're located, who runs them and if they provide a sober and safe environment critical to lasting sobriety.
In Bucks County, at least 121 recovery houses were operating as of earlier this year, according to an analysis by this news organization; more than three-quarters of the homes were located in Bristol Township, where the issue has faced intense public scrutiny in recent years.
The draft recommendations were prepared by the Certified Drug and Alcohol Recovery Housing Task Force, whose members are law enforcement representatives, recovery house operators, drug treatment providers, advocates, recovery support groups and county and state drug and alcohol service agencies. The group met over 18 months to draft standards to address issues such as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, consumer protections, discriminatory practices and community concerns.
Once the final standards and process are in place, recovery house owners can decide if they want to seek certification. The certification is voluntary, but recovery house operators who don’t sign up likely would lose access to state funding and referrals from drug rehab centers that receive state funding.
This news organization last month obtained a copy of the draft report, which includes a first-ever definition of recovery residences, building standards, an ethics code and minimum policies and procedures for operating recovery homes that serve individuals recovering from substance addiction who want a stable, drug-free living environment. Available behavior research has shown recovery houses can be an important transitional step toward maintaining sobriety.
Under the proposed standards, operators would be responsible for tracking the progress of residents by maintaining medical and personal histories, fees, activity logs, treatment referrals and case management service records. For the first time, certified houses also would be required to collect basic data, including when residents arrive and leave and the reason they moved out. Residents who are removed involuntarily from a house must be provided a written notice that includes the reason for getting booted, something that does not typically happen now.
Any unusual incidents — including overdoses, deaths, suicide attempts, sexual or physical assaults, outbreaks of contagious diseases, fire or structural damage — would have to be reported to the DDAP within 48 hours.
Home owners, operators, house officers and employees would face new scrutiny including a criminal background check and drug and alcohol testing at the DDAP's request. Former residents who want to work in the same recovery house where they once lived would be required to maintain sobriety for at least 18 months before they could be hired.
The draft standards also require operators to maintain housing quality "consistent" with the nature of the immediate neighborhood, set deadlines for addressing maintenance or mechanical problems and to carry general liability insurance on the properties. Certified recovery homes would need to meet building and amenity standards and limits on the number of residents.
Among the proposed standards are a minimum of two exits on every floor, including a basement, at least one smoke detector and fire extinguisher on each floor, and a carbon monoxide detector with heating systems involving gas or an attached garage. Houses also would have to have a written fire safety policy that includes evacuation procedures and unannounced fire drills every 90 days.
Along with its draft standards, the task force recommended additional state funding to county level drug and alcohol service providers to cover the cost of new case management services for some recovery residents. It also recommended that DDAP consider providing funding assistance to recovery home operators who could be required to upgrade their houses and obtain additional training to meet the voluntary standards.
The state agency already allows its county partners, such as county drug and alcohol service providers, to use state grants for the delivery of drug and alcohol prevention services to pay for temporary stays at recovery houses. Bucks County is one of 12 counties during the most recent fiscal year to use the DDAP money for that purpose.
Pennsylvania’s proposed regulations are modeled after ones in states such as Florida, Massachusetts and Ohio, which have enacted a voluntary certification process to bring supervision and consistent standards to recovery residences and weed out poorly run operations. In those states, behavioral health centers, drug treatment centers and courts can refer clients to only certified recovery houses. Certified houses in those states also have access to additional state funding and resources.
Bucks County state lawmaker Rep. Frank Farry, R-142, of Langhorne, who has advocated for recovery house regulations since 2013, wants to see final regulations that include mandates that anyone receiving state assistance — including unemployment, food stamps or Medicaid — who wants to stay in a recovery house can be referred to certified houses only. He also wants the mandate applied to court supervised individuals and those released from state-funded treatment centers.
"They’re not going to solve the problem completely. The only way the problem gets solved completely is if the federal lawmakers stop the conflict among their existing laws and allow states to regulate or pass regulations themselves,” Farry added. “What we focused on was to find something that can make a difference and improve the situation.”