People should be 'leery' of Ontario's boom in unregulated private drug rehab facilities: expert

‘Anyone with a business licence can open up [and] call themselves a treatment facility,’ says Tom Gabriel, who would like to see more regulation brought to the addiction treatment industry.

‘Anyone with a business licence can open up [and] call themselves a treatment facility'

Betty Dustan said she was burned by a private addiction treatment facility after sending her son there to recover. (CBC)

Betty Dustan was desperate for help when she says she decided to spend $20,000 to send her son, who was suicidal and addicted to drugs, to Addiction Canada — a chain of private addiction treatment centres with locations in Alberta and Ontario.

She says her son was kicked out of an Ontario facility after just a month, but that instead of calling his family, he was sent out in the cold, ending up in a men's shelter.

After her son left, she says her money was never returned, and that staff ducked her calls when she followed up.

"They promised us the world," Dustan told CBC News. "We would never send our son back there, ever."

Tom Gabriel, former president of the Canadian Addiction Counsellors Certification Federation says that big promises are exactly what Canadians should be wary of when picking out a private addiction treatment facility. 

Tom Gabriel, former president of the Canadian Addiction Counsellors Certification Federation, said Ontarians should be careful when picking a treatment facility. (CBC)

"Anyone can put up a website and make all these claims and it looks great," he said. "The public should be very leery." 

No regulation for private detox centres

In Ontario, private addiction treatment centres like Addiction Canada are unregulated, which Gabriel says opens the door to facilities with low levels of care.

"Anyone with a business licence can open up [and] call themselves a treatment facility," he said.

Gabriel, who now works as a crisis and addiction counsellor at the Toronto Police Association, says privately run rehab centres have proliferated to fill in the gap left by overstretched publicly funded facilities.

"You used to hear about one or two [private facilities]. I know about 15 or 20 right now that are up and running," he said.

As for Addiction Canada, it announced last week it was shutting down amid unpaid wage claims from employees and charges of multi-million dollar fraud laid against its owner.

Addiction Canada did not return requests for comment from CBC News. 

Addiction Canada's Utopia, Ontario location. (Addiction Canada)

How to find the right facility

In order to continue to qualify for ministry funding, treatment facilities need to meet the criteria laid out by the their Local Health Integration Network, Gabriel said. 

"So look for a ministry-funded place first," he said.

He also advises that people look for places that have been accredited by well-known organizations like Accreditation Canada or the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.

The best facilities offer a multidisciplinary approach, he said, advising prospective patients to look for that include doctors, nurses, social workers as well as drug and alcohol counsellors.

More funding and regulation needed

Ontario has no plans to introduce a regulation system for private addiction treatment facilties, according to an email sent to CBC News from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

But the CEO of Addiction and Mental Health Ontario said the members of the association of publicly-funded treatment facilities are moving towards creating a regulatory framework that would apply to both public and private facilities.

"We want to be in a position to give advice to the government on what a regulatory framework might be able to look like," Gail Czukar said, adding that her 220 members met in March to discuss what the ground rules should be.

Czukar and Gabriel both say that more provincial funding would also improve the treatment landscape in Ontario.

More money would help reduce waiting lists, which Czukar said can be up to two months long in some communities. And if there were more publicly funded beds, Gabriel said it would be less likely that someone would rush into treatment at a private facility because they aren't able to get in elsewhere.

With files from Go Public