At Footprints Beachside Recovery Center on Treasure Island, an employee of the drug and alcohol treatment center arrived for work one day last week to treat one patient — the only one in the place.
That's the irony of private drug rehab in Florida: Prescription drug addiction is rampant and treatment is widely available — but people don't take advantage of it because they can't pay for it.
In Tampa, the HealthCare Connection, which treats lawyers, doctors and other professionals, has lost clients because of the tough economy.
In Clearwater, Windmoor Healthcare, a private substance abuse and mental health hospital, has opened an outpatient unit to help narcotic addicts whose insurance won't cover hospital treatment.
Seven Floridians die of prescription drug overdoses each day. And more than 1.2 million abuse drugs and alcohol, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
"There's so much more need," said Timothy Sweeney, director of the recovering attorneys program at the privately owned HealthCare Connection. "But the downturn in the economy means that fewer people are able to access recovery."
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Addiction to opiates like oxycodone is considered the toughest to kick. Prescription drugs take over fast, wreak havoc faster.
"Warp drive" is the way John Templeton Sr., one of the owners of Footprints Beachside Recovery, describes the addiction.
Yet few who succumb to prescription drugs get the treatment they need. A national drug study estimated that just 10 percent of those who need treatment ever get it.
The problem is cost. Those with insurance quickly exhaust meager benefits and most don't have $5,000 to $20,000 a month for round-the-clock rehab.
"For people with private insurance, it's really difficult to get 30 days anymore (in a treatment facility)," said Brian Talley, director of business development and outpatient services at Windmoor, the private hospital. "Any private facility you talk to will tell you the same thing."
A federal law went into effect this year that can make a difference. Before the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Treatment Act was implemented, insurance plans typically limited the number of therapy visits and sought higher out-of-pocket contributions from patients.
The typical plan at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, for example, offered $2,500 a year in substance abuse benefits. Anything over that was not covered.
Now, substance abuse benefits must be as generous as coverage for medical problems like cancer and diabetes.
Still, the new regulations apply only to companies with 51 or more employees. Though the law will likely improve care and make it more affordable, it won't change the way insurers decide what is medically necessary. So with the push away from inpatient treatment, many addicts will try outpatient programs, which cost less, experts say.
Perhaps that is why 120 outpatient programs opened across Florida in the past two years. Florida licensed almost 400 new substance abuse treatment programs across the state, including 62 in the Tampa Bay area. Many focus on intervention, detox and the use of weaning medications such as Suboxone and methadone.
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Inpatient treatment centers keep opening despite the tough economy. Many are in beachfront communities like Miami, which has 85 new residential centers.
"We've hit a whole new era here," said Michael Sunich, a psychologist and addictions expert in Tampa. "There's a whole new trend here in Florida especially that's driven by the prescription drug abuse that's just skyrocketed."
At Footprints Beachside Recovery, abstract and floral art in earth tones lined the walls of the group therapy room, along with a poster of the 12 steps to recovery. A long faux-cherry wood table stretched down the center. Empty for now.
The center had just one client, who was expected later that night after work. Owner John Templeton Sr. explained that the economy had hit the center hard. Back in May, they had six of 12 spots filled. But the phone stopped ringing over the summer.
The center hired a marketing specialist to help draw more customers to its website, which offered pictures of white sandy beaches and turquoise pools.
Footprints sits in a strip of shops between a spa and a restaurant near the beach in Treasure Island. For under $10,000 a month, you can get one-on-one counseling, drug education, group therapy, food, transportation, a couple of massages at the spa next door and access to yoga at the gym across the street.
Executive director Joe Faupel runs a sober living apartment complex for 16 on the beach, four miles from the treatment center. The half-dozen residents have already completed Footprints' treatment and are attending 12-step meetings.
Templeton Sr. and his two sons, John Jr. and Shane, opened Footprints a little more than a year ago. In 2002, John Jr. drank too much in Ybor City, drove the wrong way on Interstate 275, and got into a crash that killed 18-year-old Julie Buckner. John spent nine months in jail and has crusaded against drunken driving ever since by telling his story at high schools, drug treatment centers and prisons.
"We felt like we wanted to give back so that nobody else would experience the pain of this," said John Templeton Sr. "We're doing this for a higher purpose here."
As a result, he said, treatment costs are negotiable.
"Some people can't afford to get help," he said. "We realized that setting this place up."
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8640. Researchers Shirl Kennedy and Connie Humburg contributed to this report.