Movie about drug rehab’s dark side sparks pushback, even as California legislators seek sweeping changes

The fast-cut TrailerThe new movie “Body Brokers”This is a dizzying and seductive mix of guns, cash and addiction. It’s punctuated with a neatly dressed man holding a hand to his lips as they say: “Shhhh.”

The thriller stars Jack Kilmer as Utah, and Alice Englert plays Opal “Body Brokers.”(Photo courtesy Vertical Entertainment 

“Body Brokers” then drops the curtain on what it says is an open secret in the nation’s rehabindustry, where drug addicts can be reduced to commodities that can easily be recruited for big profits, and then kicked out when their insurance runs dry. It is a scenario also explored by the Southern California News Group’s 2017 project, “Rehab Riviera.”

Although the movie is not a documentary it is based on actual events.

This month, however, the rehabIndustry issued A strongly worded letter to the film’s producer and the media, demanding the film carry a different label: “fiction.”

Though they’ve only seen the trailer, the letter, signed by behavioral health and addiction rehabExperts from California state that the movie is sensational, irresponsible, and likely to scare away addicts who need legitimate treatment centers.

A handful of California legislators are stepping up their efforts to end the tug-of-war about the independent film with low budget.We must wage war on rogue substance abuse facilities. Two Orange County legislators this year proposed or renewed bills that would force licensed treatment centers to carry insurance coverage and outlaw false advertising — regulations that would be new in the largely unregulated industry.

In her legislative pitch, she aims to raise standards in rehabIndustries Operators are required to have insurance coverageCottie PETRIE-NORRIS, D-Laguna Beach, was decried by Assemblywoman “fraudsters and scammers” were amok in California’s addiction industry.

Writer-director John Swab’s new film, “Body Brokers,”It is a crime thriller set within the world of Southern California drug rehabilitation centers. (Photo courtesy John Swab 

And that is the world of director John Swab’s “Body Brokers.”

Swab said he was a street addict for more than a decade and he jumped from detox to detox all across the country. He says he was brokered — meaning he and his insurance were sold by a third party to a rehab operator — and that he then learned to broker other addicts as part of a multi-billion dollar insurance scam.

Yet, according to the letter from behavioral health experts, Swab’s depiction of that world is wildly exaggerated.

Officials overseeing public addiction treatment programs – which operate in a separate universe from private programs – blasted the filmmaker for “a highly inaccurate” depiction of substance use disorder treatment as driven by greed rather than care.”

Veronica Kelley was the director of the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health. She also served as president of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California. This association represents every county in California. She said the film doesn’t spell out what she views as stark differences between higher-quality publicly-run programs and commercial, privately-run programs, where anything often goes.

“In the public system, because we’re dealing with taxpayer money, there’s a higher level of accountability,”Kelley stated. Public programs, she noted, must not only be licensed by the state and certified by professional organizations, but they’re audited annually by state and federal officials.

She knows both sides. She said that a relative of hers sought treatment for addiction through the commercial, private system and was involved in a brokering scheme similar to those shown in the film.

“What we’re saying in our letter is, this is just one side. People don’t know the difference between the commercial and the public systems. This represents a part of the system that needs to be revamped, absolutely,”Kelley said. “We would love for the commercial side to look more like ours. But the film is generalizing to say that all substance use disorder treatment is predatory.”

Josh Page holds a photo of Timmy Solomon, his friend who died from an apparent drug overdose Sept. 2. Solomon’s struggle was depicted in SCNG’s Rehab Riviera coverage. (Photo by Mindy Schiller, Orange County Register/SCNG). 

She said that anyone who needs assistance through the public system should call 800-968-263.

Kelley’s description, however, is more tempered than the group’s letter, which said the  “irresponsible”Focus on the movie could cost lives.

Swab stated that those critics were not allowed to attack his version.

“We’re flattered people are talking about it,”Swab said. “But this is my truth. I went through this.”

Producer Jeremy Rosen stated that it would be worse for people to look the other direction.

“It is wildly reckless to ignore this is happening,”Rosen admitted that he had not gotten it right, but he said so. “It’s a film, not a documentary. There is some poetic license.”

In fact, there have been California has many legislative changes regarding addiction treatment in the wake of Southern California News Group’s “Rehab Riviera,”But they weren’t very broad. Lawmakers acknowledge that the changes they’ve made, so far, have only nibbled at a much greater problem.

Petrie-Norris, an Assemblywoman, says that licensed treatment centers and those paid for by the government should have insurance coverage in case patients fall prey. However, most legislators are reluctant to get in on the frey. 

“California regulates anything that moves,” Petrie-Norris said. “But for some reason … it’s been open season for scammers and fraudsters.”

Petrie-Norris and Ricardo Lara, state Insurance Commissioner, have joined forces to push AB 1158This would require licensed clinics and other clinics to receive government funding to maintain minimum insurance coverage. Standards of treatment and consumer protections would then be set to qualify for that insurance.

What Lara brings is a statewide enforcement staff of 300 people, enough manpower to enforce basic health rules in the industry — something that currently isn’t part of the state regulatory system.

“There is (now) a total lack of regulation and oversight in this space and people are dying as a result,” Petrie-Norris said.

Another strike at “bad actors”In the rehabSen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), who reintroduced the world, is responsible for it. Senate Bill 434This would effectively forbid lying treatment programs.

Hailed by activists as a long-overdue, common-sense measure, Bates’ bill would prohibit false advertising and marketing about such basics as where a center is located – “at the beach” can mean 15 miles away –  and as vital as what services are offered.

Rose and Allen Nelson of Santa Monica have a picture of their son Brandon Nelson taken in 2018. Brandon, who was suffering with mental illness, committed suicide in an unlicensed Sovereign Health Home at 26. (Photo by Mindy Schiller, Orange County Register/SCNG). 

Bate’s bill is called Brandon’s Law, after Brandon Nelson. Nelson’s parents were told he was going to a state-of-the-art mental health care program where he’d be closely monitored by a licensed therapist and a psychiatrist. In reality, Nelson ended up in unlicensed, unregulated territory “sober living home mental health facility”San Clemente? where he had a psychotic break and hung himself in  2018.

This is Bates’ third attempt to get the bill enacted. Still, Brandon’s father, Allen, of Santa Monica, remains hopeful.

“It’s obviously disappointing that it wasn’t signed the first time, but we’re certainly in for the long haul,”He said.

The California Department of Health Care Services would have the authority to investigate misconduct allegations. rehabIf necessary, they will impose sanctions.

“If this is passed and enforced, it will bring meaningful change for the consumer,”David Skonezny, founder and CEO of “It’s Time for Ethics in Addiction Treatment,”A private Facebook group of over 5,600 professionals in treatment seeking to raise the bar.

“This is one of the areas where the profession has done a great disservice to the public by misrepresenting itself in ways great and small.”

Skonezny is a substance abuse counselor who has been in the industry for many years. He said that he was willing to hate the “Body Brokers” movie, but he didn’t.

Addicts often cycle through rehab after rehabOften only to be used again. (Photo by Mindy Schauer/Orange County Register/SCNG). 

“The movie is a really accurate look at what happens in the for-profit, privately-funded programs that are lacking in integrity,”He said. “This janky guy running this call center, picking up addicts off the street; a girl turning tricks in a motel to pay for dope for her and her boyfriend, people getting paid off all around – yep. That’s what it looks like.”

Bates agrees. She has been working tirelessly on the issue for many years and is hopeful that the film will bring the reality to her fellow lawmakers who have been slow to move. She’s hoping to organize a screening in Sacramento just for legislators.

“The man who wrote the story lived it,”She said. “It’s hardly fiction.”

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