Heartwarming! Drug Rehab Centre Offers Free Treatment Via Christmas Raffle

The U.S. addiction treatment system is so broken that drug users rely on festive raffles, rehab "scholarships" and GoFundMe pages to kick drugs.
December 18, 2020, 2:47pm
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A rehab centre is offering people struggling with drug addiction the chance to enter a festive raffle, with the lucky winner receiving “the gift of recovery” on Christmas Day. 

On Wednesday, a community outreach coordinator at Banyan Treatment Centers, based in Florida, posted on social media that “in the spirit of the holiday season” people with drug problems could apply online “for a chance at being awarded the gift of recovery”.

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On offer was a 30-day drug treatment “scholarship” worth up to $30,000 (around £27,000) at one of Banyan’s several treatment locations around the country. The “winner” of the rehab raffle, according to the post, will be announced on Christmas Day. “So hurry and fill out the application.” The post ended with a simple, “Good luck!”  

Addiction experts told VICE World News that offering competitions and scholarships for rehab, in a country with the worst overdose crisis in the world,  reinforced the treatment industry’s reputation for behaving in ways unlike any other in the health care sector. 

“Imagine if this happened in primary healthcare,” said addiction recovery expert Robert Ashford. “Enter for a chance to win open heart surgery!”  

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic put millions of Americans out of work, lacking the financial means to pay for addiction treatment meant people have long relied on a mixed bag of rehab scholarships, GoFundMe campaigns, and other donation-based services to try and find care. 

There’s even a phone app that offers scholarships and “sponsored beds” for treatment as well as how-to guides that give people instructions on how to crowdsource and find what are known in the industry as rehab “scholarships.”

Because the U.S. lacks a universal health care system like other developed countries, only a select group of wealthy people can afford the exorbitant cost of addiction care. Cost partially explains why only about one in ten people in the U.S. who meet diagnostic criteria for addiction ever receive specialty treatment for it.

The rehab raffle offer was posted on Facebook last week by one of Banyan’s collection of high-profile community outreach coordinators, Brandon Novak, a former pro skateboarder who has appeared in movies like Jackass Number Two and Jackass 3D. The post has since been deleted. 

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Banyan frequently deploys TV celebrities in its marketing campaigns, like Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, who also works for Banyan as a community outreach coordinator. Banyan also sells an “innovative evidence-based” virtual reality treatment program hosted by daytime TV host Dr. Phil.

A spokesperson for Banyan told VICE World News: “We don’t intend this to be any sort of ‘prize,’ rather it’s a gift of a new life that is deserving of all people struggling. We have had an overwhelming response to the post with many people who have already applied. Just to be clear, our scholarship offered by Banyan is a wonderful gift and it is not a ‘lottery’ or a ‘sweepstakes’. It’s a free, 30-day treatment program based on their clinical and medical needs, with room and board covered.”

Services at most residential facilities, like Hazelden Betty Ford, can cost more than $1,000 per day, which is about the same price as a room at the Ritz-Carlton overlooking New York’s Central Park. Only the wealthy with top-shelf insurance can afford to drop everything and spend 30 to 90 days living at a treatment facility. 

Cost is far from the only issue with addiction treatment in the U.S. Thanks to decades of stigma and criminalization, the country has a sprawling addiction treatment system that thrives way outside the bounds of traditional medicine and health care. 

“In many ways, America’s approach to addiction treatment today is similar to the state of medicine in the early 1900s,” according to a 500-page report analyzing the treatment industry published by Columbia University’s Center on Addiction. 

“Unlike other diseases, we do little to effectively prevent and reduce risky use and the vast majority of people in need of addiction treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-based care.”  

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Addiction treatment is unique in that many facilities do not follow standards of evidence laid out in the empirical literature. The dominant treatment methods entail living at residential facilities that deny the long term use of effective medications, which evidence shows is most effective especially for opioid use disorders. 

Instead, these facilities offer cozy amenities and non-medical services like “equine therapy,” where patients pet horses. Residential treatment is more expensive than outpatient office visits, and recent research shows it's also less effective and leads to higher rates of overdose deaths and hospitalizations.

Not only do many treatment programs rely on questionable approaches, government and journalistic investigations have found rampant health care fraud and abuse in the treatment industry. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin are calling for Senate hearings and investigations into the addiction treatment industry thanks to reporting by Shoshana Walter and her colleagues at Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting, who uncovered literal slave labor by some treatment programs. 

Addiction is a major public health catastrophe affecting swaths of the nation. In 2019, nearly 72,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses and nearly 95,000 died from alcohol-related causes. The federal government invested $2 billion in 2018 to treat the opioid crisis, but much of that money has yet to be spent, according to federal watchdogs.