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AAC Accuses NAATP of Coordinating Defamation Campaign in Lawsuit (updated)

May 06, 2019

American Addiction Centers on Monday filed a lawsuit alleging that the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) “is spearheading a coordinated anti-competitive effort designed to defame AAC’s reputation for the benefit of NAATP’s prominent non-profit members.” The suit was filed in federal court in the Middle District of Tennessee.

In the lawsuit, AAC accuses NAATP and certain NAATP members of:

  • Defaming AAC to shield NAATP members from competition
  • Using a smear campaign to control access to Google’s advertising platform
  • Falsely portraying provider directory websites that are operated by AAC subsidiaries, such as Rehabs.com and Recovery.org
  • Rewriting its ethics code to prevent AAC from maintaining NAATP membership after AAC had been a member organization through 2017
  • Preventing NAATP members from conducting business with AAC

“We were moved to take this action out of concern that patients were being denied access to addiction treatment resources,” Joy Sutton, AAC director of corporate communications, said in a statement emailed to BHE. “The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages to AAC and the company's various business lines, including our treatment centers, digital marketing business and diagnostic testing operations.”

NAATP was in the midst of hosting its annual National Addiction Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., when the suit was filed on Monday. In a response emailed to BHE on Friday, NAATP executive director Marvin Ventrell said: "The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers has reviewed the complaint against it filed by American Addiction Centers and categorically denies the allegations made therein. AAC’s claims are disappointing and without merit. The matter has been referred to NAATP legal counsel, who will respond to the suit accordingly."

A majority of NAATP’s 25-member board of directors is comprised of executives from not-for-profit treatment centers, and AAC said in a news release on Monday that NAATP has engaged in “egregious behavior as part of a broad strategy to disparage high-quality, for-profit treatment providers such as AAC” out of fear of “rapidly declining revenues for its nonprofit members.” While it says other for-profit operators are being harmed by NAATP’s practices as well, AAC (including its subsidiaries) is the lone plaintiff in the case.

Multiple treatment center operators, including Hazelden Betty Ford and Caron Treatment Centers, specifically were cited as member organizations who have benefited from NAATP’s alleged actions, although none of the organizations were named as defendants in the suit. Communications directors for Hazelden Betty Ford and Caron each declined to comment for this story.

‘Blacklisted’ from paid search result advertising

“Covertly,” AAC alleges in its lawsuit, “Ventrell and NAATP board members … developed a plan to damage and defame AAC.”

The party allegedly aggrieved includes Recovery Brands, the subsidiary acquired by AAC in 2015 that operates its treatment center directory websites. AAC said in its suit that it feels its directory sites were misrepresented by NAATP in the association’s meetings with Google and LegitScript to develop the certification now required for advertising on Google’s platforms. 

Further, AAC alleges that it has been unable to acquire LegitScript certification—now also a requirement for advertising on Bing and Facebook—because it has been “blacklisted” by NAATP, and that LegitScript “refuses to certify AAC based on NAATP’s defamatory and tortious actions.”

Google’s complex relationship with the addiction treatment industry is further explored later in the suit. In February, the search giant’s healthcare subsidy, Verily, in conjunction with local partners, announced an addiction treatment campus in Dayton, Ohio. While AAC says it welcomes Google’s participation in the industry, it says an “uneven playing field” has been created in which “Google is allowed to operate both addiction treatment and online advertising platforms, while AAC and others are barred from being able to do both if they want access to Google Ads.”

Google, however, is not named as a defendant in the suit, and AAC says it has “no reason to believe” Google is purposefully creating the inequity.

Editor's note: This story, originally published on May 6, was updated on May 10 to include comments from NAATP.

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