Agency’s ‘unconscionable’ actions in drug, alcohol recovery cases inspires new law

Requires more transparency in legal settlements negotiated by behavioral health division of DSHS


OLYMPIA…The public trust of the effectiveness of court-ordered drug and alcohol counseling for those convicted of driving under the influence was destroyed by the mismanagement of complaints and the below-board settlement process for violations by those trusted to hold counseling providers accountable. These actions inspired a change in the law that will shine a light on future settlements.


Senate Bill 5705, sponsored by Sen. Randi Becker, requires stricter oversight of the Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery within the state Department of Social and Health Services. DBHR is responsible for licensing, inspecting and certifying behavioral-health providers who manage outpatient drug and alcohol services. SB 5705 was signed by the governor Tuesday and takes effect July 23.


According to Becker, R-Eatonville, evidence shows that multiple counseling providers solicited bribes from patients in the court-ordered drug and alcohol program. In exchange, providers reportedly falsified such documents as attendance records and urinalysis results. When DBHR received complaints about the activity, it conducted inspections that found, in many cases, multiple similar violations. On multiple occasions the agency, with the help of an assistant attorney general, entered into settlements that reduced the number of violations and the amount of the penalties, creating the appearance that the providers’ actions were not as serious or as widespread as they actually were.


“I am dumbfounded that DBHR would look the other way and settle cases where there was clear evidence of license violations and illegal conduct,” said Becker. “DBHR’s willingness to ignore criminal behavior is unconscionable.”


Some patients who failed to comply with the recovery program’s requirements were reported to be in compliance, meaning people with serious substance abuse issues who were not adequately treated are driving despite DUI convictions.


“I am most concerned about the patients in the drug and alcohol programs and the safety of the public. Are people getting the help they really need so they don’t continue to drive under the influence or are they being manipulated and turned back out on the street as a threat to the safety of everyone else?”


SB 5705 implements oversight of settlement agreements between DBHR and counseling providers by prohibiting settlements intended to reduce the number of violations in order to avoid litigation. Any proposed reductions would need to be substantiated by evidence showing compliance with a DBHR corrective-action plan and would need to sufficiently justify the request to reduce the violations.


The bill also requires DBHR to submit an annual report to the Legislature with a detailed overview of each settlement agreement and a copy of the actual agreement, including background information detailing the provider’s violations so that lawmakers have the context in which to evaluate the settlements.


“The integrity of our behavioral-health system and our criminal justice system is at stake. Failure to oversee the settlements of these cases creates an environment that tolerates egregious behavior that is, at best, unethical and, at worst, criminal. We need to rein it in and follow the trail as high as it goes.”


SB 5705 goes a step further by prohibiting “sham transfers,” which is when the owner of a counseling agency sells the agency to a family member to avoid liability. Family transfers will no longer reset the violation count and help “bad actor” providers avoid liability.


Caption: Joining Gov. Inslee for the bill signing is Matt Tremble (left), policy counsel, and Mr. Jerry Esterly (right), whose girlfriend was killed in a drunk driving accident by a client of one of the counseling centers soliciting bribes.


Watch a report on this bill by KING TV.