Searching for reputable addiction treatment providers can be confusing. Many families begin by seeking help online but, according to a recent New York Times article, prosecutors and health advocates have warned that many online searches are leading those seeking help to click on ads for rehab centers that are unfit to help them.
In response to this problem, Google has begun to restrict the ads on its site that pop up during searches for addiction treatment. “We found a number of misleading experiences among rehabilitation treatment centers that led to our decision,” Google spokeswoman Elisa Greene said.
By federal law, insurers are required to cover substance abuse treatment, and a single patient can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in rehab insurance claims. Though many treatment centers market themselves ethically, there are some that use deceptive and illegal tactics to recruit patients.
In December 2016, a grand jury in Palm Beach County, Fl., convened by State Attorney Dave Aronberg, investigated fraud and abuse in the addiction industry and found that gaming Google searches is a common way to lure people into questionable and sometimes dangerous treatment. Half a year later, the state of Florida, which houses about 1500 licensed facilities, enacted a law to crack down on internet marketing abuse by substance abuse service providers and to regulate call centers. “The ones at the top of the list aren’t necessarily the most popular, the most successful at treatment,” said Aronberg. “It’s often the company that pays Google the most.”
One witness, according to the grand jury report, described how “online marketers use Google search terms to essentially hijack the good name and reputation of notable treatment providers only to route the caller to the highest bidder.”
Search ads for rehab and addiction treatment are big money generators. According to Bloomberg News, a midsize addiction treatment center can easily spend $1 million a month or more for Google AdWords, and fees per click for the most popular addiction keywords have doubled over each of the past three years.
Recognizing the potential dangers, Google, in September 2017, stopped selling ads related to a large number of rehab-related search terms, including “rehab near me,” “alcohol treatment,” and thousands of others.
Drug and alcohol rehab treatment is a $35 billion industry and Google’s decision will affect many marketers in this area. “This is a bold move by one of the world’s biggest companies, saying people’s lives are more important than profit,” said Greg Williams, co-founder of Facing Addiction, a nonprofit group that is an advocate for people struggling with addiction.
Google’s decision to restrict ads came after the tech news site the Verge published a story detailing how unethical providers use AdWords to exploit those searching for treatment, including some advertisers posing as caregivers who were, in reality, call centers that sold leads on patients to the highest bidder.
Google’s decision draws light to some of the flaws in the treatment industry. As the number of addiction cases has grown, it has become more and more difficult to find reputable treatment providers. Frequent lack of physician referral compounds the issue. When a person has a serious medical illness, their doctor typically refers them to treatment by a specialist. This is not always the case with those looking for substance use treatment. Patients and their families are left to navigate the treatment field on their own, and frequently begin with a Google search.
According to advocates and law enforcement officials, ad-driven searches do not always lead to the best care. Google has acknowledged that patients are being duped and misled in some cases. In advocating for this change, Williams presented research to Google in which he noted that some of the biggest buyers of ad words related to treatment had been accused of misdeeds related to insurance fraud and sexual assault.
In some cases, patients are misled by clicking on an ad while searching for a local rehab program, only to be directed instead to an out-of-state treatment center. If they sign up, the online referral service is paid a fee. Federal and state laws make patient brokering, or selling access to patients, illegal, under the theory that money shouldn’t take precedence over finding proper care.
Google’s restrictions may be lifted if they can find a way to eliminate misleading advertisements, but their current decision is being lauded by health officials and addiction advocates.