25 Investigates: South Florida leaders to New England rehab patient - 'stay away'

LAKE WORTH, Fl. — In the midst of a statewide public health crisis involving opioid overdose deaths, leaders in South Florida are urging out-of-state patients seeking recovery to go somewhere else for help.

The message comes as 25 Investigates found at least a dozen people from Massachusetts and New Hampshire have overdosed and died in Palm Beach County while seeking recovery since 2015.

Sending them back in body bags

Lake Worth City Commissioner Andy Amoroso said he’s lost friends and relatives to addiction and he now sits on a task force dedicated to fighting the heroin epidemic and to cleaning up so-called “sober homes.”

But when it comes to out-of-state addicts seeking treatment in Palm Beach County, he doesn’t mince words.

“Stop sending your loved ones to South Florida because we’re sending them back in body bags,” said Amoroso.

Records from the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s office show more than 800 people have died from heroin and opioid-related overdoses since 2015.

A 25 Investigates review of the records revealed at least a dozen of those people were from Massachusetts and New Hampshire while seeking recovery.

Authorities in Palm Beach County have since stepped up efforts to prosecute a crime known as “patient brokering,” where people fighting addiction are offered free flights, insurance and other giveaways to get them into particular programs.

“If their insurance stops paying or they relapse, they throw ‘em out, but there’s a full circle of people who are grabbing those people who relapse and putting them right back in the system,” said Amoroso. “Getting them new insurance and that’s where the money is.”

Attorney General Healey sends a warning

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey recently put out a warning about potential rehab scams in Florida and elsewhere.

“If anybody comes to you, unsolicited, offering to get your loved one into treatment for opioids, that should raise a red flag,” Healey told 25 Investigates.

She said she wants families in Massachusetts to report suspected cases of abuse so her office can take action.

“That may mean going after those actors in other states. It may mean certainly alerting authorities, but bottom line, we’re going to do whatever we can to protect families,” said Healey.

Patient pipeline still open

25 Investigates was in South Florida for less than 24 hours before meeting another person from Boston who came to the area specifically to get treatment for addiction.

With 90 days clean so far, Sara Mooney might be considered one of the lucky ones who got into a legitimate recovery program.

“You don’t know who’s trying to help you and who’s trying to take advantage of you,” said Mooney.

She says she’s lost friends to overdoses since coming to Florida and says many more continue to flood the area from New England and other parts of the northeast, but she remains hopeful for her own recovery.

“You’re just trying to get some help and hoping people are going to be honest along the way,” said Mooney.

Lawmakers in Florida recently passed legislation to put more money into the fight against patient brokering.

Leaders in both Florida and Massachusetts are urging anyone interested in seeking drug rehab to ask questions and to do their “homework” before signing on with any program.