Patients wait to be let into the Narco Freedom clinic on Willis Ave.
Patients wait to be let into the Narco Freedom clinic on Willis Ave.

After Narco Freedom bust, state promises clinics won’t close

Patients at local drug rehab clinics say they were housed in bedbug infested shelters and forced into excessive treatment plans while the executives who ran the program raked in millions in Medicaid money.

Now they say they are anxious but hopeful about what’s next for them after a lengthy investigation led to the arrest of the current and former CEOs of the Mott Haven clinics where some have been going for years.

The Attorney General’s office painted a stark portrait of greed and corruption when it announced the arrests of the nonprofit Narco Freedom’s directors, family members and other staff on March 18. According to their depiction, patients were pressured to attend unwarranted treatment daily so that Narco Freedom could bill Medicaid for reimbursements payable directly to its clinics while executives were driving around in luxury vehicles. Meanwhile, patients were housed at dangerous, filthy shelters, from which they were threatened with eviction if they refused to comply with the excessive treatment plans.

A few days after the arrests, a dozen men and women waited for medication and treatment outside the Willis Avenue clinic.

Sully, 28, said he has been in Narco Freedom’s treatment and housing programs since 2013, with a heroin addiction. He and his wife said they are trying to dry out so they can regain custody of their two-year-old daughter. Sully said he has bounced around between numerous Freedom House men’s shelters Narco Freedom runs, in Mott Haven, Melrose and other Bronx locations. His wife has primarily stayed at two women’s shelters in Mott Haven. They said they were aware of the arrests of former CEO Alan Brand and his two sons, and of the current director, Gerald Bethea, but they worry their own treatment needs will not be considered when changes are made.

“You never hear nothing about people like us,” said Sully’s wife. “Where do we go?”

“Every house I’ve stayed in so far has mice, roaches, unbelievable bedbugs,” said Sully, adding that part of the ceiling in his most recent shelter caved in the other day. Management fixed it, he said, but only because they were about to receive a visit from the treatment organization that may take over the operation. Sixteen men sleep in one room and share a bathroom, he said. An overhead camera records their every move.

“Every part of this program stinks, all the way down to the ground,” he said.

A small group of patients headed around the corner to a bakery to get out of the cold.

Sully said his decline into addiction happened quickly. He said he had been making $50 per hour making cast molds out of cement pins and wedges at a concrete company in another state, when one day the hammer slipped from his grip, shattering his thumb. The pain was so intense, he said, that the doctors put him on Percocet.

“It didn’t seem that bad to take a couple of pain pills,” he said.

Soon he had developed an addiction to expensive painkillers. He couldn’t keep up with the expense. But when a friend suggested he try heroin because it was so much cheaper, Sully saw the logic. Soon he was hooked on that, too.

“It was the worst mistake I ever made,” he said. He and his wife came to New York because there was no program available back home.

A fellow patient named Junior said he has been receiving treatment from Narco Freedom since 2002. Junior, who was wearing dark sunglasses although the day was overcast, remembered a decade or so ago when times were better at the clinic, “because there weren’t that many people. They’re dumping people into it now.”

In recent years, Mott Haven residents and Community Board 1 have complained that the city is using the neighborhood as a dumping ground for methadone clinics, mental health facilities and homeless shelters.

Alan, 37, said he has been receiving treatment and housing at Narco Freedom since he came to the city from Pittsburgh three years ago with his wife to visit her sister. Like Sully, pain pills led to his heroin addiction. He showed knotted knuckles where the pain radiates, and explained curtly, “I used to fight.”

One day during their visit, Alan’s sister-in-law found their paraphernalia in her Brooklyn apartment.

“She put us right in the streets,” he said. “That started our shelter journey.”

Since then, Alan said, “they haven’t done a damn thing except drain my Medicaid and give me my medicine.” Although he sees a counselor regularly, he said, “he doesn’t do shit.”

The police are always right behind him, Alan said. One officer who knows him by name has stopped the squad car several times when he’s seen him on the street, he said, asking if he’d like a ride. “If I say ‘yes,’ he’s going to take me to the station and lock me up,” Alan said.

When the Attorney General’s office announced the arrests, it ensured “continuity of care for all patients that use Narco Freedom’s services,” with the assistance of the state agencies that oversee drug rehab clinics. Any interruption in service, patients say, would be a disaster.

“I’m optimistic, but what if they shut it down,” said Sully.

If it shuts down, “there’s gonna be 1,000 addicts running through the streets of New York,” said Alan. “This place is going to be a zoo.”

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