Murphy presses for federal probe of ‘sober homes’ after overdose deaths

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Sen. Chris Murphy speaking on the Senate floor.

Washington –  A rash of overdoses in “sober homes” in Connecticut and other states has prompted Sen. Chris Murphy and a bipartisan group of his colleagues to ask federal investigators to determine if additional oversight is needed of these residences for people recovering from substance abuse.

Murphy is leading an effort that has been joined by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Orrin Hatch R-Utah; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The senators this week wrote the U.S. Government Accountability Office, asking it to investigate state and federal oversight of these homes.

Sober homes are not typically subject to state regulation because they do not generally provide treatment but rather offer a place where people in similar circumstances can support one another. Murphy and his colleagues want the GAO to determine if they should be under greater scrutiny by the state or federal government.

There are an estimated 240 sober homes in Connecticut, providing shelter to people who are trying to stay away from drugs and alcohol, but there recently has been one opioid overdose death in a home in New London and two others in a Torrington home.

“Connecticut is in the midst of an opioid epidemic.” Murphy wrote in a letter to  Comptroller General of the United States Gene Dodaro. “The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner projected that almost 900 residents in my state would die from an overdose in 2016. This is more than double what it was just four years ago.”

Murphy also told Dodaro that the recent overdoses that have occurred in Connecticut sober homes “have raised questions about these facilities, and the GAO review will be helpful in determining whether state and federal policymakers should consider additional oversight.”

The Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services currently certifies 17 organizations to provide “supportive recovery housing services,” a sober housing arrangement in which residents also receive case management assistance.

Local governments sometimes try to restrict the establishment or operation of sober houses through zoning and housing codes, but federal law that aims to protect the rights of recovering addicts and other disabled Americans limits their ability to do so.

There are generally no state or federal regulations about the kind of treatment a person must receive in a sober home – or a requirement for treatment at all.

Connecticut and other states have proposed bills recently to define and regulate sober houses. None have been enacted.

However, New London has begun implementing a voluntary certification process for its sober homes after a man died of a suspected opioid overdose in one of the city’s homes earlier this month.

Jeannie Milstein, New London’s director of human services, said the issue was brought to her attention a year ago by the fire chief.

“A lot of (sober homes) are excellent, but a lot are just mattresses on the floor,” Milstein said.

She is hoping property owners will “come forward” and participate in the voluntary certification program, and that the state legislature will approve a new law that would provide some oversight. She’d like that legislation to ensure that only certified sober homes receive federal and state grant money and are placed on referral lists for families and treatment providers.

She also said she applauds Murphy’s efforts on the issue.

Murphy and his Senate colleagues want federal investigators to determine, among other things, how many  sober living homes there are in the United States, how many individuals they serve and the characteristics of this population?

The senators also have asked the GAO to assess  the effectiveness of services offered through sober living homes.

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