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Group home - sober living: Bill clears Senate committee hurdle

State Rep. Noel Campbell, the chairman of the State Legislature’s Ad Hoc Committee on Drug Rehab Recovery Homes, leads a committee meeting Thursday morning, Oct. 22, in this captured screen shot from the online broadcast of the meeting.

State Rep. Noel Campbell, the chairman of the State Legislature’s Ad Hoc Committee on Drug Rehab Recovery Homes, leads a committee meeting Thursday morning, Oct. 22, in this captured screen shot from the online broadcast of the meeting.

The same Arizona Senate committee that killed a group-home licensing bill in last year’s legislative session unanimously endorsed a new, amended bill this week that would allow for more local regulation.

In a 7-0 vote Wednesday, March 16, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee approved House Bill 2107 – the substance abuse recovery home bill – with a “do-pass” recommendation.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, would give cities, counties, and towns the authority to more strictly regulate structured sober living homes in their communities.

Campbell has emphasized that the bill is “permissive,” meaning that municipalities and counties could opt to take on the added regulations if they so choose, but would not be required to do so.

Central to the approval of the bill was a “strike everything” amendment sponsored by Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Barto reportedly worked with Campbell to try to allay some of the industry concerns that had come up at past committee meetings. For instance, the amended bill now includes reference to the U.S. Fair Housing Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – federal laws that protect those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction from discrimination.

The amended bill reads: “A city or town may adopt by ordinance standards for structured sober living homes that comply with the state and federal fair housing laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The amended bill also changes the definition of structured sober living homes by eliminating the reference to a percentage of residents in the home who receive outpatient behavioral health services for substance abuse or addiction.

While the earlier version stated that the bill would apply if at least 35 percent of the residents met that requirement, the amended version has no such reference.

Campbell allowed that the amendment “softens” the bill somewhat, but he said it would still give communities, such as Prescott, the ability to tighten up their regulation of structured sober living homes.

He added that he sees the mention of the ADA and the Fair Housing Act as “redundant,” because “no state statute can violate federal law.” But, he said, the mention of the federal laws apparently helped to alleviate the concerns of the Arizona Recovery Housing Association (AzRHA).

Indeed, Theresa Ulmer, who had previously expressed vehement opposition to the bill on behalf of the industry organization, told the committee on Wednesday that she was “actually a little torn” about the amended bill.

Noting that the bill still appears to be “a little contradictory” in what it is trying to achieve, Ulmer maintained that more work still needed to be done to deal with the bill’s “conflicting issues.”

Still, unlike previous hearings, which brought out a number of industry opponents to testify, this week’s hearing included mostly positive comments from group home owners, largely from Prescott.

Prior to the hearing, Peter Thomas, chief operating officer of Chapter 5 Treatment Programs in Prescott, had circulated a letter to other treatment programs in the community, asking for support for the bill.

“The lack of regulation and oversight has created numerous hardships to patients, their families, the underprepared staff working in the facilities, and the communities and neighborhoods in which they operate,” Thomas’s letter stated.

After the hearing, Campbell said the buy-in from the local recovery industry, as well as the sponsorship of the amendment by Barto, were both instrumental in the bill’s positive review by the Health and Human Services Committee, and he thanked “all of the recovery home owners and CEOs who came down to testify today.”

Amended HB 2107 definition of “structured sober living home”

“Any premises, place or building that provides alcohol-free or drug-free housing, promotes independent living and life skill development and provides structured activities that are directed primarily toward recovery from substance abuse disorders in a supervised setting to a group of unrelated individuals who are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction and who are receiving outpatient behavioral health services for substance abuse or addiction treatment while living in the home.”

Also central to this week’s hearing was the testimony from Jill Martin, a Prescott resident whose son died while in recovery in a sober living home in California. “My husband and I are the product of the lack of regulation,” Martin said told the committee. Noting that the house manager at the California group home had later described her son as being “white as a ghost” the evening of his death, Martin said the manager took no precautionary actions, but “sent my son to bed to die.”

Martin maintains that the type of training that cities and towns could require under Campbell’s bill would make a difference. “I believe my son would be alive today had this manager been trained,” she said.

The bill would allow municipalities and counties to require: mandatory registration; supervision requirements during all hours of operation; and discharge planning.

HB 2107 still has several hurdles to cross before it gets goes to the Governor. Campbell expects the bill to go to the Committee of the Whole, as well as a “third reading,” before it would go the full Senate for a vote. Then, he said, the bill would have to go back to the House for consideration of the amended version.

At last year’s legislative session, Campbell sponsored a bill that would have required state licensing of sober living homes. That bill died in the Health and Human Services Committee in March 2015, prompting Campbell to sponsor a revised group home bill this year.

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