DELRAY BEACH, Fl. — An influx of out-of-state patients seeking help with opioid addiction in Florida has prompted that state’s governor to declare a public health emergency. Now 25 Investigates has uncovered at least a dozen people from Massachusetts and New Hampshire have died from drug overdoses in just one Florida county in the last year and a half.
In many cases, investigators say the recruiting of patients to some recovery centers was illegal.
Promises lead to false hope
The mother of Jesse McCauley from Rockland said the offer of a free flight to Florida and “free insurance” to pay for treatment was too good to pass up. McCauley, who was 23 at the time, had already been in a long battle with an addiction to heroin.
“He was supposedly given a scholarship and they were going to pay for his insurance and his flight,” said Jeanmarie McCauley.
She had already lost two other sons to drug overdoses.
But McCauley says Jesse didn’t get the help he needed once he arrived in South Florida.
“He called me up and said the place was a piece of [expletive],” said McCauley. “So he left.”
McCauley said her son bounced from one recovery program to another without ever having to pay a dime. Meanwhile, his insurance was billed for tens of thousands of dollars for tests supposedly related to his treatment.
McCauley and friends of her son told 25 Investigates he was even given a scooter and paid by someone to “blog,” promoting one of the rehab programs online.
Yet, on Nov. 6, 2016, police found the body of Jesse McCauley on Delray Beach, dead of an apparent overdose.
“I screamed,” said McCauley who got the news of her son’s death in her car. “I kicked the dashboard. I couldn’t believe -- I said to myself, 'this is my third kid. How can this happen?'”
Patient brokering, a crime that targets those most in need
Investigators say the events that brought Jesse McCauley to Florida have all the markings of a crime known as patient brokering.
“The most basic way I can explain it is, people are pretty much selling people suffering from the disease of addiction,” says Delray Beach Police Detective Nicole Lucas.
Lucas is part of a task force that has begun cracking down on patient brokering in Palm Beach County. Police raided one Delray Beach treatment center, “Good Future,” in December. Friends of Jesse McCauley say it was the last place he sought treatment before he died.
The business remains open in the same location under a different name, "Atlantic Treatment Center," but that didn't stop Lucas and police from arresting former owner Daniel Kandler. Two other business partners, David Remland and Mark Desimone, were also arrested last week.
Together, the three men are charged with more than 100 counts of patient brokering.
A drop in the bucket
Det. Lucas estimates thousands of people fighting addiction have been recruited by patient brokers. She says so-called “headhunters” are breaking the law by offering free plane tickets or other giveaways to get a patient into treatment.
“That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what they’re going to make off your insurance,” said Lucas. “That’s why they’re giving you cigarettes, clothes, free rent, because they’re bringing in millions of dollars.”
The family of Michael Elliott, 25, of New Hampshire showed 25 Investigates his insurance bills for one week of treatment in Florida. Over the course of that week, Elliott racked up more than $54,000 in claims for supposed tests and procedures.
Elliott died on Riviera Beach on April 1, 2016, but his family says more insurance claims rolled in for months after that.
How a dream can become a nightmare
Now a patient advocate, Elizabeth Mooney of Weymouth says she was once in Florida for recovery when she was offered a job as a headhunter.
“My job was to bring patients to their facility… and I was told $500 a person,” said Mooney.
Mooney says she turned down the job, but still witnessed suspicious activity when she returned to Massachusetts and thought she was connecting others with legitimate recovery programs.
“I was being told they were being sent to these places,” said Mooney. “I would tell them, ok yeah, this is where you’re going and they’d get down there and call me and say ‘um no.’ -- There was a place, but it was just not humane. They were sold a dream that became a nightmare.”
Deadly consequences from illegal promises
While it’s difficult to know exactly how many people from New England have sought treatment for addiction in Florida, the Medical Examiner in Palm Beach County has tracked 800 opioid related overdose deaths since 2015.
Many of those who died came from out of state.
Along with Cox Media partner The Palm Beach Post, a 25 Investigates review of the Medical Examiner's records found at least a dozen people were from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
For Jeanmarie McCauley, one of her last face-to-face conversations with her son still haunts her:
“He said to me right before he left, ‘what would you do if I died?’”
Cox Media Group