Finding Your Next Step

Unethical Treatment Practices in the Recovery Industry

Increased opportunity for profits and competition has resulted in a growth of unethical treatment practices and behavior in the recovery industry. Being aware of these challenges is crucial for individuals and families looking for help, especially around treatment centers. The risk is greatest around services that are most expensive, and thus hold the greatest opportunity for profit. Be wary of anyone who guarantees an outcome and make sure to speak to individuals that are actually onsite at the treatment center and not just a third-party connection service.


Note: This article focuses specifically on ethical challenges in the addiction recovery landscape, more so than other areas of mental health or life change. If not applicable, feel free to feel free to skip ahead.

Becoming Aware of Unethical Treatment Practices

It is important to be aware of unethical treatment practices that are present in parts of the recovery industry. These activities range from morally gray to outright illegal. Many of these practices stem from competitive pressure or opportunities where profit-seeking overtakes the mission of helping people in recovery. For some types of services, such as support groups and counselors and therapists, ethical challenges are rarer due to the lower possibility of financial gain. 

By no means does this apply to all or even a majority of providers. However, it makes it very important for families and individuals to carefully consider treatment options. Providers that operate ethically are likely more motivated by the mission of health and growth their patients, which can increase the likelihood of successful treatment. 

A Changing Industry

Rapid changes in the industry have changed the recovery landscape by creating opportunities for individuals to earn greater profit than ever before. Several years ago, changes in requirements for private health insurers around treatment coverage began to attract more financially-driven individuals to the industry. Insurers are now required to cover addiction treatment, creating strong financial incentives for centers to bring patients into their programs.

Unfortunately, these incentives may impact how industry stakeholders view and communicate what they believe is best for an individual needing care. Moreover, increased compensation has also unintentionally brought more competitive pressures that influences behavior. In some cases, bad actors are misleading individuals and families. In others, they are defrauding insurers directly. 

Examples of these practices highlight risks involved with finding ethical and quality treatment services. Sadly, these behaviors also threaten to overshadow the important and life-changing work done by many treatment centers that help people overcome addiction. 

Examples of Unethical Treatment Practices

Examples of less-than-ideal behavior can take many forms, ranging from unethical to illegal. They include: 

False, “white lie” marketing. This includes promising services or amenities that are not actually available. This typically happens in the context of getting help from call centers where respondents may or may not have visited the treatment center.

Manipulative in-person marketing. Some individuals target support groups or other communities and try to convince them to re-enter treatment. In some cases, unscrupulous individuals paid or provided other benefits for patients in exchange for their participation.

Not supporting continuing care. Sadly, resources to help individuals successfully transition out of treatment programs are often lacking. This can range from lacking a long-term treatment or transition plan, to forcibly kicking out patients and leaving them with nowhere to go once insurance runs out.

Fraudulent billing. This includes charging insurance companies for services that are never delivered, for patients that do not exist, or for patients that are no longer in treatment.

Paid placement marketing services. Many websites and call centers offering treatment advice redirect interested patients and families to those for whom they are paid sizable fees. Some providers of care own these online resources directly, creating a potential conflict of interest that should be disclosed. Paid referrals to a specific place by a doctor or online resource is unethical and in some cases illegal. 

Misrepresenting the level of clinical care. Not having doctors or other medically-trained staff on the premises as promised or advertised.

5 Keys for Avoiding Unethical Treatment Practices 

For many people, treatment centers play an important role in recovery and the discovery of a flourishing life. Here are five tips helpful when considering possible treatment resources: 

  1. Find providers that you can speak with directly. Be cautious around third parties. Try to connect with an individual that actually works at the center before committing to their services. If possible, connect or visit the facility in person. Ask about the type and level of care offered, and how the provider helps people transition out of treatment. 
  2. Lean on trusted relationships. Find individuals or providers with whom connection and trust can be built, or is already present due to their position (like a licensed physician). From there, work through that individual’s existing relationships to navigate various steps.
  3. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to treatment centers or helplines that offer help if they don’t seem trustworthy. While recovery can happen in many contexts, the environment created by a provider’s team does matter.
  4. Remember that change and healing around addiction can come in a range of providers and places. An expensive or luxurious program may look more comfortable, but amenities do not indicate a higher likelihood of successful treatment. More expensive programs may not necessarily have better training, clinical credentials, or experience. 
  5. Work with an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or health insurer to understand coverage. Insurance coverage can be complex. Talk with trusted professionals in order to build understanding of what will and will not be covered.


Take a look at the Recovery Research Institute’s Addiction-ary to better understand addiction, recovery, treatment, and related topics. Remember, some terminology and practices may vary by state. Many experts and practitioners in the industry recommend choosing your next steps through trusted, knowledgeable individuals. A licensed physician is a great place to start. Counselors and therapists may also be able to help provide direction. 



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