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Washington — A U.S. House committee probing the national opioid epidemic is seeking documents and answers from call centers — including one in Macomb County — about their business practices

The inquiry includes questions about how much the call centers are paid to solicit and refer patients to specific treatment centers.

Letters went out from the committee this week to executives at eight call centers including Elite Rehab Placement CEO Thomas Kearns in Macomb, in addition to businesses in Florida, California, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia.

Bipartisan leaders of the House Energy & Commerce Committee say they're worried about reports from health officials and news outlets about so-called "patient brokering."

These "body brokers" rely in part on call centers and aggregators to generate leads on potential patients for treatment centers, which pay for the referrals to their facilities.

The House committee says some companies disclose their use of call centers or referral websites, while others don't — hiding that they receive financial kickbacks from the facilities for referrals or even steering patients to facilities owned by the same company that's operating the hotline. 

"Call centers have become synonymous with a way for a marketing firm to be able to either sell that person to the highest bidder — wherever their insurance will pay them the most money — or if it's owned by a treatment center, it puts them in one of their facilities," Douglas Tieman, CEO of Caron Treatment Centers, said at a December hearing.

"The telemarketer is instructing you, you know, yes, you may be wanting to go to Minnesota, but let me tell you why our place in Florida is far better this time of the year."

The lawmakers cited reports about perks that companies may offer to attract patients to certain treatment or detox centers and sober living homes, such as "scholarships" for treatment, yoga classes, free housing, discounted groceries, even free cigarettes. 

"The committee is concerned about these practices, as they appear to be motivated by profit, rather than what is most clinically appropriate for individuals," six lawmakers wrote in the letters including Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Oregon.

"The exploitative tactics employed by patient brokers and some call aggregators have been deployed amid a perfect storm."

Federal health officials say 20 million people reported a substance abuse problem in 2016, including 1.8 million involving prescription pain pills. 

Michigan had 2,376 drug-related deaths statewide in 2016 — a near 20 percent increase over 2015, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Lawmakers are demanding to know how the call centers' employees are trained to help individuals seeking addiction assistance to ensure they get to the facility appropriate for them, as well as what, if anything, they disclose to callers about any affiliations with treatment centers.

They also want monthly data on the number of calls the centers have received and routed to facilities since 2013, and whether any criminal charges or lawsuits have been brought against the company or affiliated treatment centers. 

A committee spokeswoman said the panel sent letters to a cross section of small and large businesses identified through either media reports or by independent research.

Elite Rehab Placement LLC is based in Clinton Township, according to state incorporation records. Messages left for CEO Kearns on Thursday and Friday were not returned. 

Elite Rehab pitches itself as a "full service, no cost, rehab assistance organization."

The company's homepage says Elite Rehab Placement prides itself on "taking a much stress as possible out of locating the perfect treatment facility": 

"Why waste hours and put forth large amounts of hard work calling several different rehab centers in your area, when we can simplify the entire process. We've already done all of the research and built the necessary relationships with numerous high quality drug and alcohol rehab centers all over the nation. All it takes is one phone call to us to get placed into the best rehab facility for you or a loved one."

The website touts unnamed "luxury" rehab centers resembling "five-star resorts," located on the water or in the mountains, featuring pools, spas, private trainers and gyms, on-site massages and acupuncture, executive chefs and private suites.

The company claims online that it receives more than 300 calls a day from individuals suffering from addiction disorders or their family members. 

It urges patients or their loved ones to call a toll-free number for a free "analysis" of insurance benefits to determine how much of their rehab costs would be covered. 

"We handle all the insurance paperwork so that there are no surprises at your end. We might even be able to cover your airfare if the best treatment option for you is located out of state," the website says.

Lawmakers asked the company to brief the committee on its responses by June 12.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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