HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Methadone a Booming Business in Western Va.
Pubdate: Sun, 04 Jan 2004
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2004 Roanoke Times
Author: Laurence Hammack
Bookmark: (Methadone)
Bookmark: (Oxycontin/Oxycodone)


Opponents Say It's All About Money, but One Methadone Clinic Operator Says 
It's Not a Way to Get Rich Quick.

Four years ago, there were no methadone clinics in Virginia west of Richmond.

Now there are three. Soon there may be six.

The proliferation of the treatment programs, which dispense methadone daily 
to help addicts break their dependence on other drugs, is attributed to the 
region's long-standing problem with prescription drug abuse that peaked 
around 2000 with the emergence of OxyContin.

"OxyContin is a medication that is so strong it bottomed out a lot of 
addicts" and forced them into treatment, said Tina Bullins, chief executive 
officer of the Life Center of Galax, one of three companies that have 
considered opening clinics in the Roanoke Valley.

But a truly altruistic concern for treating drug addicts is not the main 
reason methadone clinics are popping up like mushrooms across Western 
Virginia, opponents say.

Methadone, they say, is all about money.

"It's a cash cow," said Michael Bragg, an attorney who represents residents 
opposed to a proposed clinic in Washington County. "You get someone hooked 
on methadone, and you don't want to cure them, you want to keep them on the 
methadone and keep the money coming in."

Methadone clinics typically meet resistance from nearby residents who fear 
that an influx of addicts will bring crime and drug dealing to their 
neighborhoods. But opponents also say the treatment - which costs about $10 
a day and can last for years - often becomes a business run by corporations 
more concerned about the bottom line than with addicts who have bottomed out.

While methadone providers dispute that, they clearly are part of a growing 

Since March 2000, when the region's first clinic began treating addicts in 
Galax, two other clinics have opened, in Tazewell County and 
Charlottesville. Two companies have announced plans for clinics in the 
Roanoke Valley. A third firm filed an application for a state license and 
quietly surveyed the methadone market before putting its plans on hold. Yet 
another clinic is proposed in Washington County.

What is happening in Western Virginia has been playing out on a national 
scale over the past decade.

In 1993, there were 775 methadone clinics in 40 states that treated 115,000 
people addicted to opium-based drugs such as heroin and OxyContin, 
according to Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the 
Treatment of Opioid Dependence in New York.

Today, more than 1,100 clinics in 44 states are treating 205,000 patients, 
Parrino said.

Increased amounts of heroin being smuggled into the country and a growing 
problem with prescription drug abuse are feeding the demand for methadone 
clinics, according to Parrino.

Those who fault private companies for profiting from the problem miss the 
point that the service is desperately needed, he said. "Is there any 
question when a doctor sets up an office" in a medically underserved area? 
Parrino said. "It's an access-to-care issue."

As long as methadone clinics provide quality care and work well with other 
drug treatment programs in the area, James Sikkema believes, the issue of 
making money should be a nonissue.

"People can make money and provide quality services and do the right thing; 
there's nothing wrong with that," said Sikkema, executive director of Blue 
Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, the valley's largest provider of substance 
abuse treatment.

"It's just that they're facing challenges from the profit-margin point of 
view," he said. "The challenge is not to compromise quality and services 
out of concern for the dollar, which is hard."

n n n

Last month, when the Life Center of Galax abruptly dropped plans for a 
methadone clinic in Roanoke County, it appeared to clear the way for a 
second proposed clinic to become the valley's first such operation since 
the 1970s.

But the Roanoke Treatment Center, which National Specialty Clinics plans to 
open within a few months at 3208 Hershberger Road, may soon have competition.

The Life Center has not given up on the region.

"Our goal continues to be to locate and open a medical clinic as quickly as 
possible in order to treat the citizens of the valley and to do so while 
working with the community as a good neighbor and citizen," Bullins said.

A third company filed an application in April with the state to operate a 
methadone clinic in Roanoke, but has since let the lease on its site expire 
and is no longer actively pursuing locations in the area.

So at least for now, the controversy is limited to Northwest Roanoke, where 
community activist Jeff Artis says "economic racism" is behind plans for 
the clinic.

According to Artis, National Specialty Clinics picked the black community 
as the path of least resistance to the profits of dealing in methadone.

"They're just as money-hungry as the drug dealers are," he said of the 
Nashville, Tenn., company.

National Specialty Clinics estimated that its Hershberger Road clinic will 
bring in revenues of $492,580 in its first year of operation, according to 
a license application the company filed with the state Department of Mental 
Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services.

After paying the relatively low cost of methadone, rent on the building, 
salaries and other expenses, the clinic is projected to reap a profit of 
$127,026. Taxes will reduce that annual sum to $80,027.

That amounts to a profit margin of about 16 percent, which is substantially 
higher than the norm in the health care industry, said Jan Clement, a 
professor of health administration at Virginia Commonwealth University.

National Specialty Clinics operates 16 clinics in six states. In the past 
four years, it has opened six clinics in West Virginia. The Hershberger 
Road site will be its first clinic in Virginia.

The company's growth mirrors a national trend in which the independently 
run methadone clinics are being replaced by ones run by large corporations, 
according to Joycelyn Woods, president of the National Alliance of 
Methadone Advocates.

Methadone clinics in large, urban areas are more likely to be nonprofit 
operations affiliated with a hospital, Woods said. In the more rural areas 
of the country, where OxyContin abuse is often widespread, the clinics are 
usually run by private, for-profit companies.

Of 1,215 methadone programs surveyed three years ago, 54 percent were 
private, for-profit operations, according to Leah Young of the U.S. 
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Another 35 
percent were private, nonprofit clinics, and the rest were run by local, 
state or federal governments.

Woods said the level of treatment can be equally good - or equally bad - at 
nonprofit and for-profit clinics, depending on the staff and other 
variables. "I've seen government clinics that are real bad and private 
clinics that are beautifully run," she said.

n n n

When Dr. Dorothy Tompkins decided to open a methadone clinic in the 
Charlottesville area last year, she didn't want it to be part of a large 
corporate structure.

"Our goal is to treat patients, not make money," she said of the private, 
nonprofit Pantops Clinic.

"Each patient has different needs," she said. "By keeping this operation 
relatively small, we don't have to answer to another whole different set of 
regulations imposed by a corporation."

And by turning all profits back into the clinic, Tompkins is able to offer 
additional services to her patients, such as reduced fees based on 
financial need.

Medicaid does not pay for methadone treatment in Virginia, and only a small 
number of clinic patients are covered by private insurance. Although $70 a 
week for treatment can add up, methadone providers point out that most of 
their patients spent far more on their illegal habits.

By downing a dose of liquid methadone once a day, opioid addicts can escape 
their cravings for illegal drugs and avoid withdrawal symptoms. Methadone, 
a synthetic narcotic developed during World War II as an alternative to 
morphine, is also prescribed as a painkiller.

Although patients do not get high when they use the drug properly, they do 
become dependent on it, leading critics to say methadone maintenance 
programs replace one addictive drug for another. It can take years for a 
methadone patient to gradually be taken off the drug; some addicts need it 

Methadone clinics are governed by extensive state and federal regulations. 
They are also required by law to be accredited by one of several agencies, 
and they must obtain permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration to 
prescribe methadone.

All that regulation casts doubt on the theory that the clinics are only 
after an easy dollar, Parrino said.

"It's not like opening a pizza shop," he said. "You can't just open the 
shop and sell to whoever you want to sell to."

While Tompkins prefers the nonprofit arena, she too rejects the argument 
that methadone companies are in the business solely to make money fast.

"They're not going to get rich quick off this," she said. "There's just no 
way. There are so many regulations as far as fulfilling the needs of the 
patients, they can't charge the patients enough to get rich quick."

And even if they do turn a profit, Woods said, "That shouldn't even be an 

"The issue is: Are you providing comprehensive treatment so the patients 
can get their lives together and become productive members of the community?"

If the answer to that question is yes, methadone advocates say, the real 
profits go to the community.
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