When President Obama took office in 2009, his Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy proclaimed that the new administration would no longer use the term “War on Drugs”, as they found it to be “counter-productive”. In June of 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a scathing report which clearly stated that “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
Just in the past decade, we have seen countless headlines of wrongful arrests, innocent people or pets being injured or killed, and a disproportionate amount of young minorities being incarcerated in the name of this failed war. But just when you think that the headlines cannot get any more depressing, or that this “war” cannot get any more bizarre, CNN’s Anderson Cooper has uncovered a story of fraud and lies within California’s Medicaid drug rehab program that will make your skin crawl.
After a year-long investigation in conjunction with the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting, Cooper revealed a scam that is not only ripping off California taxpayers for tens of millions of dollars each year, but poses unwilling foster and group home teenagers as drug addicts in order to do so.
Using undercover cameras and stake-outs, Cooper’s team found that the teens, few of whom suffered from any sort of addiction, were taken from the Southern California group homes to various drug treatment clinics, which in turn billed Drug Medi-Cal according to the padded attendance figures. Their investigation discovered that in the past two fiscal years, upwards of $94million was paid out to over 56 fraudulent SoCal clinics that were found to be using “questionable billing practices”. That dollar figure represents over half of the total publicly funded budget for the program.
TaMara Shearer, a former addict and rehab supervisor says she routinely witnessed the owner of the Riverside and Pomona based clinics where she worked skirt the laws to maximize his own profits. She claims that clinic counselors were pressured to assign addictions to teens, whether true or not, which led to a racial stereotyping that saw white teens routinely labeled as alcoholics and Hispanic and black teens as potheads.
With over half of the program’s budget being milked by scams, a lot of people with legitimate claims are unable to get the assistance that they truly need. One such story comes from a woman from Los Angeles named Vredette Hawkins. The mother of four was an out-of-the-closet pot smoker, but was forced into a child custody nightmare when someone accused her of using meth. Seeking counseling at the local Drug Medi-Cal rehab clinic, what she found instead was a Fight Club-like scene of a mob of people faking symptoms for cash, without a counselor in sight. “The only person benefiting from this,” says Hawkins, “is the person that’s running the program.”
Counselors with a conscious, like Tamara Askew in Inglewood, began to notice the disturbing trends surrounding drug addiction billing, and she soon discovered that the under-funded state program was being billed for incarcerated “patients”, and even dead ones, none of whom could have possibly been sitting in a rehab class a month prior. When she brought it to the attention of her boss at Pride Health Services, he explained that the more clients he could report treating, the more he could bill the government, and ended the conversation by asking her “How do you think you’re going to get paid?” When she refused to sign off on the fraudulent paperwork, he literally unplugged her computer and told her to leave. She sued for wrongful termination; Pride counter-sued claiming they just ran out of work for her. She was forced to settle for $15,500. One less hero in the system, and a cheap price to pay in a $47million dollar a year scam.
Spurred not by repeatedly ignored reports and claims of fraud by whistleblowers in the system, but by the pressure put on them by Anderson Cooper and CNN, state investigators finally announced a crackdown on the clinics and their billing in mid-July. The state Department of Health Care Services immediately suspended 16 clinics suspected of wrong-doing and on Tuesday announced that they had temporarily shuttered 13 more.
The stories and accounts are too many to list here, and are still happening today. CNN’s reporting shined a necessary light on the problem, but a slap on the wrist for 29 clinics in Southern California is merely a good start, at best. While the potential tax revenue on medical marijuana in California climbs into the billions, this latest theft of millions of taxpayer dollars provides a stark contrast and all the proof you need to determine that the War on Drugs has absolutely failed.