Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel, presents Senate Bill 94 to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

A bill that would bring a degree of regulation to Montana’s sober living homes and incentivize operators to seek accreditation from industry organizations produced conflicting testimony in a Tuesday hearing before the Legislature’s Senate Judiciary Committee. 

If it becomes law, the policy would mark a new effort in Montana to rein in a currently unregulated part of the addiction recovery industry. Unlike clinical treatment centers and medical providers, recovery homes are not subject to state licensure and can have wide-ranging philosophies of substance use recovery and support. As Montana Free Press previously reported, at least one organization operating two homes in the state requires residents to work without pay for the majority of its year-long program and also complete Bible study and homework. 

“These sober living houses … are in our communities and across the state and there’s no regulations,” said Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel, the sponsor of Senate Bill 94 and a member of the state Criminal Justice Oversight Council that drafted the bill last year.

As it’s currently written, the bill would require drug and alcohol recovery homes to register with the Department of Public Health and Human Services and implement some emergency and safety protocols, including keeping opioid overdose medication onsite, allowing participants to access medication-assisted treatment and not arbitrarily limiting a residents’ stay.

The bill would also direct how defendants and people on probation and parole are moved to recovery residences from the legal system. It would require judges and qualified health care providers to only refer individuals to recovery homes that have gained accreditation from state-approved organizations, such as the National Alliance for Recovery Residences.

Additionally, SB 94 would require the Department of Corrections to only distribute parolees’ rental vouchers to recovery residences that have gained accreditation. The department’s deputy director, Cynthia Wolkin, testified in favor of the bill on Tuesday.

But proponents of the bill were outnumbered by opponents, many of whom said they supported the intent and broad strokes of the policy but took issue with certain provisions. The Montana Primary Care Association requested amendments to the bill to make clear that a referral to a recovery residence does not supersede a residents’ right to seek and obtain medical treatment for addiction, and cautioned against giving judges too much authority in making treatment decisions for a defendant. 

Two other opponents said the bill should specify that the state’s acceptable accrediting organization is the Recovery Residences Alliance of Montana (RRAM), a group operated by the Native American Development Corporation that the state health department used grant funding to help create in 2021. RRAM, its advocates said, is the only accrediting group that uses national best-practice standards endorsed by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“These sober living houses … are in our communities and across the state and there’s no regulations.”

Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel

“I believe with some minor modifications, this bill can strengthen the state’s fractured recovery system, save lives and restore our friends and neighbors that struggle with substance use,” said Megan Bailey, a project developer with the Native American Development Corporation.

Other opponents, including several current and former residents of Sober Beginnings, as well as the founders of that recovery residence group in Billings, said they interpreted the bill to increase regulations for individuals staying at recovery homes and threaten to change the non-institutional nature of the programs. 

James Dailey, a resident of Sober Beginnings, stressed that the industry should continue to feel distinct from correctional settings or inpatient treatment, facilities he and others said they spent years cycling through before finding stability at a recovery residence that emphasizes peer support and empowerment.

“If you try to take sober living and start governing them like DOC facilities where you’re inmates,” Dailey said, “you’re already walking on eggshells. You are already on edge, just trying to make it to the next minute, to the next second, to the next day.”

Usher, the bill’s sponsor, said the opponents’ characterizations reflected “a lot of misinformation” about how the legislation would change operations at the residences. 

“All we want is basically to put some sideboards on the owners of the organization, not on any of the residents, per se,” said Usher, adding that he was open to considering any amendments from opponents or from the Department of Public Health and Human Services. “We want to do the right thing with this. It’s not to be another DOC facility at all.”

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, chairman of the committee, told Montana Free Press on Tuesday that lawmakers may vote on the bill as soon as Friday, though that action could be scheduled for a later date if amendments are introduced.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.