Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on March 23, 2023. Credit: Montana Public Affairs Network

Legislation to bring a layer of oversight to Montana’s addiction recovery residences faced strong pushback during a committee hearing Thursday, signaling hurdles for bill supporters concerned that the industry operates without consistent safety or ethical standards.

Conceived by the state’s Criminal Justice Oversight Council in response to the recent increase in sober living homes in Billings, Senate Bill 94 would establish a statewide registry of residences and provide a certification requirement for homes that want to accept referrals from judges, prisons, or probation and parole authorities. 

The bill passed out of the Senate in February with some amendments and near-unanimous support from both parties. It would be the first statewide policy to create safeguards for the currently unregulated industry of recovery homes, where standards for safety and resident support vary widely. 

At their best, supporters say, recovery homes that operate with the principles of peer support and resident empowerment can be a valuable alternative to medical or correctional settings. But ethical concerns have surfaced in Montana and in other states over residents working for little or no pay in exchange for room and board. Other homes have barred residents from using certain medications, including suboxone for treating opioid-use disorder.

Proponents of SB 94, including county attorneys and state officials from the health and corrections departments, told lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that the legislation will help ensure that operators are not taking advantage of or endangering residents trying to stay clean and sober.

“Billings began having an issue with sober living homes when there became an exponential growth of them,” said Pam Purinton, a Billings City Council member, during testimony Thursday. “It became more of a business model than a model of healing and recovery.”

But the bill also received criticism from home operators who said the language about certification was vague and did not explain which national organizations — such as the National Alliance of Recovery Residences or the National Sober Living Home Association — would be allowed to accredit residences. A representative of the state health department said those decisions should be part of ongoing conversations between the bill sponsor, state officials and community providers.


The unregulated world of Montana’s sober living homes

At their best, Montana’s sober living programs offer peer support to help residents gain long-term sobriety. But without oversight or enforceable standards, critics say, the residences can be unsafe, punitive, and financially exploitative for a vulnerable demographic often enmeshed in the criminal justice system.

Montana’s new efforts to regulate recovery residences

Addiction recovery experts in Montana have started pooling their expertise to create a certification process for recovery homes. Their goal is to help residences meet national best-practice standards, protect residents from unethical practices and set more people on the path to long-term recovery.

Other opponents, including roughly two dozen residents, staff and volunteers from the Christian, work-based recovery program Hope Center Ministries, said SB 94 could lead them to shut down their Montana homes if they could not achieve certification. That status would prohibit them from accepting referrals from courts and the Department of Corrections, which administrator Carolyn Belling testified make up more than half of their current residents.

She and other Hope Center Ministries supporters, based on their philosophy of sobriety, also took issue with a portion of the bill that would require certified operators to permit all treatment and medication prescribed by a qualified health care provider.

“Although I agree with the intent of Senate Bill 94 and understand the need to regulate sober living homes, as written, this bill threatens to eliminate our program as well as all transitional recovery programs in the state,” Belling said.

Current and former residents testified about the important role Hope Center played in their recovery, crediting the program for helping them maintain sobriety and thrive in other parts of their lives. 

“Since graduating the Hope Center, I’ve been working full-time, paying my own bills. For the first time in my life, I can call myself an independent woman,” said Helena resident Lauren Montoya. “Hope Center Ministries program saved my life and has done so for many other men and women.”

The sponsor of SB 94, Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel, refuted the argument that the bill would shutter sober living homes if they do not seek accreditation, and said it did not single out religious programs. He also suggested that the bill’s requirement for accepting prescribed medications was important. 

“So if somebody goes in schizophrenic and they can’t go without their medication, I guess the Hope Center does not allow that. And so with that said, that would take them out of being able to be certified,” Usher said. “Well, if it’s medically necessary to keep someone stable, the state government is going to go with the medical doctors and what’s safe for society and what’s safe for that person.”

Lawmakers expressed interest in adopting amendments to alleviate the concerns of Belling and other providers. They did not vote on the bill Tuesday morning.

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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.