LOS ANGELES — For addiction treatment centers, an appearance and positive mention on the popular daytime talk show “Dr. Phil” is marketing gold. Phone lines light up, e-mails pour in, and beds fill up.
“Dr. Phil mentioning a facility has an impact the same as Oprah saying, ‘Hey, read this book,’ ” said Greg Horvath, who produced a documentary, “The Business of Recovery,” that is critical of the treatment industry. “You go into the stratosphere.”
A STAT/Boston Globe investigation shows how some carefully placed promotions are also a financial opportunity for a new business venture involving the show’s host, Phillip McGraw, and his son, Jay.
An addiction recovery program the McGraws launched this year comes with an enticing offer: Buy their self-help video product and you could land a valuable spot on the top-rated “Dr. Phil” show.
But what’s good for the treatment centers and for the McGraws’ new venture might not always be good for viewers. One Florida facility that Dr. Phil endorsed on his show as one of the best in the nation has a troubled owner and has had scores of teens go missing in the past two years, according to court documents and police reports.
The “Dr. Phil” show said in a statement that two of the more than 20 treatment centers using the addiction recovery program have been mentioned on the show this year and that there have been no promises to facilities buying the new product that they will appear on the program. The statement said none of the centers is listed in the “resource directory” on the show’s website.
“Any suggestion that appearances on Dr. Phil’s show are linked to the purchase or use of this program is false,” the statement said.
The McGraws’ addiction recovery program is a series of virtual reality scenarios starring Dr. Phil. Called “Dr. Phil’s Path to Recovery,” it has been offered to treatment centers at monthly rates ranging from $3,500 to $7,000.
In addition to appearing on “Dr. Phil,” centers that buy the product have been featured on “The Doctors,” a program owned by the production company founded by McGraw and his son.
The appearances by operators buying into the new product is not an accident, said Jim Shriner, the vice president of sales for Path to Recovery, according to one potential customer who spoke with him and shared details of the conversation. Shriner didn’t comment when contacted by a reporter.
Participating treatment centers, Shriner said to the customer, are used by “Dr. Phil” and “The Doctors” as a “go-to resource” for drug and alcohol rehab. That means that when either show does an episode on addiction, participating operators could get a call asking them to fly out to Los Angeles and sponsor a guest’s treatment — unbeatable advertising.
“Our job is to get your phones to ring, and the admissions hopefully follow,” Shriner told the customer. He also boasted that viewers of “Dr. Phil” and “The Doctors” are an attractive demographic: older, high-income people who make treatment decisions for family members and “not the addict calling because I told my mom I’d do it.”
At least four treatment centers using the virtual reality product have already appeared on the shows, Shriner said, according to the customer. In October, the Path to Recovery website promoted the appearance of the operators of two treatment centers in Texas and California on an upcoming episode of “The Doctors” to share a “powerful story” featuring the virtual reality product.
While the “Dr. Phil” show website doesn’t list Path to Recovery customers, it contains a prominent link at the top of the page to the Path to Recovery website; that site features participating treatment centers. The website of “The Doctors” similarly links to Path to Recovery.
The “Dr. Phil” show said the Path to Recovery program has received “positive early feedback,” but added that it is a completely separate company from that which produces “Dr. Phil.”
In the Path to Recovery program, users don virtual reality goggles and are placed in scenarios with Dr. Phil. In one, McGraw sits at a bar, arms folded across his chest, counseling his visitor on how to avoid the triggers of an evening out when alcohol is present. In another scene, he reclines in jeans on the backyard patio of his sprawling estate, sparkling pool and fuschia flowers behind him and a wide blue sky above, and shares coping strategies.
“You’ll leave these sessions feeling as though you just had an eye-opening and insightful conversation about your life with Dr. Phil,” the Path to Recovery website promises. The product is described as “the culmination of more than four decades of experience Dr. Phil has working in the mental health profession and addiction recovery.”
In the conversation with the potential customer, Shriner acknowledged that evidence of the program’s effectiveness was anecdotal. A disclaimer on the program’s website cautions it is “solely for general informational purposes” and is “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical, health, mental, or psychological problem or condition.”
The marketing benefits are more certain.
Shriner, in trying to convince a potential customer to buy the program, said it was a “very attractive” way for small and medium-sized facilities to gain a national advertising presence at a reasonable price.
One facility that has used the Path to Recovery Program is Inspirations for Youth and Families, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., treatment center for teenagers that is owned by Christopher Walsh and Karen Corcoran Walsh. Corcoran Walsh is also listed on state licensing records as the owner of another Fort Lauderdale treatment center called The Cove Center for Recovery. Walsh and Corcoran Walsh had been on the “Dr. Phil” show in the past and Corcoran Walsh was on the set the day McGraw unveiled Path to Recovery to his national audience in March.
“We think outside the box in designing what addicts need,” McGraw told his studio audience. “What you need is something that pops out of the noise, something that rises above the noise. Like a distinctive voice. And that voice, in this case, is me.”
On that program, McGraw introduced Corcoran Walsh by saying she ran “the nation’s leading family addiction treatment and dual-diagnosis center.” (Dual diagnosis refers to people with both a substance abuse disorder and mental illness.)
Teens sent to Inspirations routinely run away from the facility and find themselves in dangerous situations, according to police documents and parents of those treated there.
“It seems to be an ongoing problem in that particular facility,” said Steven Sarduy, managing director at Indemnity Security & Investigations Inc., who worked as a private detective to recover two girls who vanished from the facility in 2016 and 2017. “Obviously, there’s a gap somewhere, a loophole somewhere in the system, where they’re just leaving.”
In the past two years, Inspirations staff members have made about 180 reports to police about children in their care going missing, according to police records. Sometimes the teenagers, who range in age from 13 to 17, were gone only for hours — but in other cases they wandered Fort Lauderdale for days, or left the state entirely.
One girl wound up trading sex for drugs; some of the teens used drugs or got intoxicated; at least six were arrested, and at least two turned up at the hospital, according to police reports. One group, who fled the facility together, robbed a homeless man, a police report said.
“They touted this, ‘We were on Dr. Phil’ — they use that as, ‘We must be a great facility because we were on Dr. Phil.’ Well, that has nothing to do with how the facility is run,” said Jill Walters of South Carolina, whose 17-year-old son ran away from Inspirations in March 2016, walked to Miami, and spent several days on the street. “You entrust your child to the care of these people, and something like this happens.”
A check of court records also reveals a number of incidents involving the center’s co-owner, Christopher Walsh, including a dispute with the Boca Raton Resort and Club, which he alleged in a 2015 lawsuit served him an excessive amount of alcohol even though employees knew or should have known he was a “habitual drunkard.” The case was settled.
The Walshes did not return several telephone messages left with facility staff, as well as e-mails seeking comment.
The “Dr. Phil” show, in its statement, said the status of treatment centers it interacts with “is of course ever changing” and that “no treatment center in business for any period of time has a spotless complaint record.” The show said it relies on state licensing boards to “qualify both practitioners and facilities.”
State records in Florida indicate Inspirations is currently licensed.
Shriner said that to be eligible to participate in the Path to Recovery program, a treatment center has to be accredited and pass a stringent legal review. He told the potential customer that protecting the reputation and brand of the “Dr. Phil” show was important in vetting facilities using the virtual reality program.
Inspirations in July helped promote the McGraws’ virtual reality product, filming one of its teen patients giving a testimonial, which was then posted to the Path to Recovery website.
“I never found anything that was as helpful as the Dr. Phil recovery program,” said the 17-year-old in the video, which included her full name, her birthday, and where she was from. She had spent more than 500 days of her life in treatment, she said, but she was finally feeling better. “I know that if I focus enough, that I can pretty much achieve anything I want to, within reason.”
The teen, whom STAT and the Globe are not identifying because she was a juvenile at the time, said in a recent interview that she found some of the tips from Dr. Phil useful, and that the virtual reality approach was a welcome relief from group counseling sessions.
Nonetheless, only days after filming the testimonial, the teen turned 18 and checked herself out of Inspirations. She relapsed within a few days, which is not uncommon for someone struggling with addiction. She said she is now sober thanks to an outpatient program near her home.
After the teen was interviewed by a reporter, her video testimonial was removed from the Inspirations and Path to Recovery websites. A staffer who answered the phone at Inspirations said the facility no longer uses the virtual reality program.
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. David Armstrong can be reached at david.armstrong @statnews.com.