Towns study viability of methadone clinics

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(Host) Two and a half years ago, the Legislature approved the creation of methadone clinics to help treat Vermont’s increasing number of heroin addicts. But establishing the clinics has been a slow process.

The state’s first methadone treatment center opened last month in Burlington. Eventually it will be able to treat 100 patients. Last year alone, 600 Vermonters sought treatment for heroin addiction, many in out of state facilities. Although health officials say the state needs more clinics, there are currently no plans to build additional facilities.

VPR’s Steve Zind looks at the obstacles:

(Zind) It took more than two years after the governor and the Legislature signed off on methadone clinics for the first one to open. There are two reasons for the delay: money and public opinion.

Discussions about opening clinics in Rutland and Brattleboro were shelved last year when local health officials said they couldn’t operate the facilities on the amount of money the state was willing to pay to reimburse them.

Eventually, state officials realized they needed to spend more to establish methadone clinics in Vermont. The Burlington clinic opened with significantly more funding than Brattleboro and Rutland had been offered. Yet despite that increase, it could be some time before another clinic is up and running. Right now, there are no additional state funds earmarked to open a new methadone facility.

Thomas Perras is director of the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. He thinks the money can be found, but says it will be hard:

(Perras) “We have a very tight budget, we’ve been in recisions. A new administration is coming in which will surely have a different slant on things and we don’t know what that fiscal policy is going to be. And we have a new composition of the Legislature coming in.”

(Zind) Mark Munson is chief executive officer of Rutland Mental Health. He was involved in the discussions to establish a clinic in Rutland. He says there’s been no serious talk of reviving the plans:

(Munson) “At this point there has not been any formal dialogue in probably about four or five months. Certainly we’re willing to have that dialogue, should the circumstances change. We know the state is in a precarious position from a financial standpoint right now.”

(Zind) Melissa Hayden is co-founder of Rutland First; the group was organized to fight a clinic in Rutland. Hayden feels a clinic would hurt the community. Hayden says her group remains active in case a new proposal surfaces:

(Hayden) “I’m sure the powers that be are still trying to get that clinic here and I think it boils down to dollars and cents.”

(Zind) Hayden feels the majority of public opinion in Rutland is against a clinic.

Similar concerns were expressed when there was talk last year of opening a clinic in Brattleboro. But plans were quickly abandoned. That’s because the Brattleboro Retreat couldn’t reach an agreement with the state on the amount of reimbursement needed to run the facility.

Pat Perfetto is vice president for patient care at the Brattleboro Retreat. She says currently there are no plans to open a methadone clinic in Brattleboro. Perfetto says the Retreat is waiting, in part, to see is the Burlington clinic is well-received.

(Perfetto) “We are watching what’s happening up in Burlington, because obviously if the clinic does well in the Burlington area, the community might respond differently if we were to talk about it again.”

(Zind) Thomas Perras thinks once other communities see that the Burlington clinic is running well, they’ll be more receptive to opening new clinics. If and when that happens, the state will have to find the money to fund them. That could be a tall order in these economic times.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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