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Drug addiction treatment center too costly, Broward County auditor says

Broward agency disputes it’s overstaffed and calls for review by consultants

Broward County taxpayers could be spending too much to run a recovery center for drug addicts.

A scathing report by county auditors last week charged that treatment at the Broward Addiction Recovery Center is about twice as costly as the national average. Too few beds are being used and the staff is too large, the auditors alleged.

The county should consider turning the program over to private organizations, the auditors concluded. They estimated that even if the county continues running the center, better management could save taxpayers up to $4.7 million a year. Plans to build a $21.3 million detoxification center also should be reconsidered, auditors said.

Administrators and supporters of the recovery center — which has locations in Fort Lauderdale, Lauderhill, Coral Springs and Hollywood — strongly dispute the findings. They persuaded county commissioners to hire outside consultants to conduct a new review.

However, the dispute comes at a time when the county must find more than $100 million in spending cuts from its $1.3 billion general operations to pay for voter-mandated property tax relief.

“Throwing this program out to the wolves is not a solution, but would make things worse,” said Rocky Rodriguez, president of the county’s substance abuse advisory board. “The reality is everyone looks at addiction as someone else’s problem, but it is a disease.”

The recovery center opened in 1973 and each year helps about 5,000 people trying to recover from alcohol or drug abuse. At a cost of $19 million a year, the center offers inpatient detoxification programs and outpatient counseling. There also are programs for the elderly, pregnant women and Hispanics.

The auditors compared Broward’s treatment center costs to those reported in a 2005 national study and found large disparities.

The cost of helping people withdraw from alcohol or drugs with round-the-clock inpatient care is $458 a day per patient in Broward compared to $250 in the national study.

The cost of a residential treatment program in which patients are offered counseling is $261 a day per patient in Broward compared to $103 nationally.

The auditors blamed too much staffing. Broward’s 92-bed residential treatment unit in Coral Springs has twice the staff per bed as a similar one in Miami. While the Miami facility has no nurses assigned there, Broward’s has 15 full-time nurses. Also, 98 percent of the beds in Miami are filled on average, compared to only two-thirds of those in Broward.

Social services officials have relied on the national study for past comparisons but disputed its use this time. They said their programs are more comprehensive than those in the study and that Broward has a greater drug abuse problem. People in other communities often have trouble finding treatment, they said.

County Auditor Evan Lukic defended his office’s report to county commissioners, saying the costs in Broward were more expensive any way he looked at them.

He suggested the agency examine how the rest of Florida offers recovery services. He said only 3 percent of substance abuse treatment centers in the state are run by local governments and that consultants advised the county in 1999 to turn its program over to private organizations.

Lukic also said the county relies too much on property taxes to pay for the service. He said little effort is made to collect fees from clients or to seek reimbursement from Medicaid.

The most controversial of Lukic’s recommendations, though, is that the county reconsider construction of a treatment center.

County commissioners agreed in 2004 to replace the current treatment center with a new larger facility. The new southwest Fort Lauderdale location is the site of the Christian Romany Church, and the county has won an appellate court decision that it can force the church to sell.

Lukic said the current center is not over capacity and that the expanded center will cost an extra $1.3 million a year to run in addition to the construction expenses.

Social services administrators said the new building is needed because the current one is in such poor condition that repairing it would be even more costly.

Commissioner John Rodstrom, who long opposed the new center, termed the report “an embarrassment” after the county fought “to run these religious people off their property.”

Other commissioners disagreed and questioned whether the auditor exceeded his authority in questioning the construction project.

The need for the center will be part of what the new consultant looks at.

“I don’t believe I have enough information to make a decision,” Mayor Lois Wexler said.
source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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