Sober home bill passes House, heads to Senate

In just its second year as a concept, a bill intended to regulate Connecticut’s sober homes easily passed the House on Monday night and likely will be heard on the Senate floor.

Only state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, voted against the bill, which encourages sober home operators to seek certification from legitimate organizations. A similar bill proposed last year passed the House but wasn't voted on in the Senate.

To Jeanne Milstein, New London’s human services director, the speed with which the state bill evolved shows how serious Connecticut is about tackling the homes, which generally aren’t subject to government regulation and sometimes feature dismal conditions.

“It really shows how policymakers and leaders in the state of Connecticut are not only recognizing, but also responding to this tragic public health crisis,” said Milstein, who has spent time in Hartford working to tweak the bill’s language.

As introduced, House Bill No. 5149 would have made it so sober homes could promote themselves as such only if they registered with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

But DMHAS objected to the initial wording, citing, among other things, an inability to monitor the homes for compliance without additional resources.

Under the new language, operators would need to get their homes certified by an approved outside agency such as the National Alliance for Recovery Residences. The operators then could report their certification to DMHAS, which in turn would list the homes on its website.

To get on the list, operators also would have to stock at least two doses of an opioid overdose-reversal drug such as naloxone in their homes and tell DMHAS each week how many beds they have available.

The bill further requires operators to state on their websites that sober homes are voluntary living situations that don’t provide substance use disorder treatment. Under the bill, operators who mislead tenants could be charged with engaging in unfair trade practices.

State Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, said he considers the bill a good first step toward addressing a complicated issue, but that “all of us working on the bill recognize there are further steps that we can take.”

He’s interested, for example, in examining the possible parallels between those who operate Airbnb rentals and those who run sober homes. Some who rent their homes out on Airbnb do so in violation of their standard mortgage and home insurance policies, which generally assume the homeowner is living in the home, not renting it out. Soto is wondering whether the same could hold true for sober home operators.

“This bill is more robust (than last year’s) and there was more bipartisan work on it,” Soto said. “That said, I think difficult issues take time to resolve. It takes time for laws that really address a big public policy issue to get passed.”

In New London, where at least seven people have died in sober homes since 2014, Milstein said officials are “thrilled” by the bill. Its House passage came four days after U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal stopped by the city to seek leaders' input on proposed national legislation that has a similar goal.

“I am hoping that the Senate will take this bill up and pass it,” she said, “and that it will help not only save lives, but improve the quality of life for those who are working so hard in recovery and for the neighbors as well.”

The 2018 regular session of the General Assembly is scheduled to end Wednesday night.

l.boyle@theday.com

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