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New regulations for 'sober houses' draw fire

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 09. 2018 10:54PM

CONCORD — A proposal by the state to license so-called “sober houses,” where people recovering from addiction live together in a group setting free of drugs and alcohol, could drive such places out of business and force others to reduce services, according to housing providers.

Members of the organization were among those attending a public hearing on 70 pages of new rules proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services for licensing of substance use disorder residential treatment facilities.

Certain housing services, run by organizations like Granite Recovery Centers of Hampstead or Bonfire Recovery of Dover, are currently unsupervised by the state, and they want to keep it that way.

Operators of licensed residential treatment facilities would also come under the new rules.

“Sober housing is not residential treatment, and it doesn’t belong in these regulations,” said Andrew West, executive director of Bonfire Recovery. “It is recovery support and is covered under federal fair housing laws.”

West told the hearing officers from Health and Human Services that the state would be hard-pressed to enforce the regulations at current staffing levels.

“DHHS is currently over-extended and doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with the rapidly evolving marketplace in New Hampshire and across the country for substance abuse disorders,” he said. “We need to be nimble and react quickly, and these regs are going to hamper that.”

Melissa St. Cyr, chief legal officer for DHHS, presided over the hearing and said the input would be taken into consideration before the final rule proposal is submitted for legislative approval, with the hope of implementing something by late fall.

The proposed rules cover every conceivable aspect of group home operations, including sanitation, administration, health and safety, infection control, dietary needs and records management.

The new rule breaks addiction housing services into three tiers. The first tier would be houses that are essentially run as a democracy among residents, with no supervision. The second tier is houses that have a live-in manager who gets free rent and some benefits. Those two tiers would remain outside the new licensing requirement.

The third tier, with things like 24-hour staffing and availability of clinical services or outpatient therapy, would come under the new requirements.

“I don’t think that’s going to result in better safety at facilities,” said Eric Spofford, CEO of Granite Recovery Centers. “It could make things worse, because the facilities that do have staff and those additional things will reduce their level of care to have less structure and less oversight, to avoid being licensed.”

Kristine Paquette, director of Homestead Inn 1765 in Boscawen, said she was mostly concerned about the cost of compliance with fire safety and other building codes designed for institutional buildings, not group residences.

“It’s mostly fire codes, sprinkler systems, alarm systems,” she said. “Now you are institutionalizing these folks versus giving them a home.”

Spofford says he understands the state’s interest in promoting safety and identifying poorly run operations, but believes the new rules won’t accomplish those objectives.

“These regulations are very well-intended, but I have to say they are going to counteract the very reasoning behind them,” Spofford told the DHHS officials.

“We have had sober living operators run by fly-by-night places that take advantage of vulnerable people, that have drug use and overdoses, and have been a nightmare for neighborhoods, but if that’s what you’re trying to address, these regulations will do the exact opposite.”

Paquette and others urged accreditation by the National Association of Recovery Residences as an alternative to state licensing.

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