Should drug clinics turn profit? 3 private facilities applying to open

February 23, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

An article in yesterday's editions on private, profit-makin methadone clinics incorrectly identified the location of a facility proposed for Baltimore County. The facility proposed by James E. Hodges would be located in the 6300 block of York Road.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Organizers hope to open as many as three private, profit-making methadone clinics in Baltimore County, and some local health officials are not happy about the prospect.

A Landover-based firm has definite plans to open a clinic in Rosedale in the spring, while the organizer of a second clinic, which is being billed as "mostly for nicotine addiction," is planning to open in the 6800 block of York Road. Organizers of a third clinic have expressed interest but have not made a formal application to state and federal authorities.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Although privatization of public services has become popular among cash-strapped state and local governments, Michael Gimbel, Baltimore County's substance abuse coordinator, said he is dead set against this kind of facility, which is relatively new to Maryland but is gaining popularity around the country.

"Private, for-profit methadone is very bad," he said yesterday. "This is legalization [of drugs]. Are you going to allow this worm to grow?"

So far there are only five profit-making methadone clinics in Maryland, three of them in the Baltimore area. The drug they dispense is a narcotic that blocks an addict's heroin craving.

The newest of the five opened last week in Columbia, according to state drug abuse officials. The four others are in Eldersburg in Carroll County, in downtown Baltimore and in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Metwork, the Eldersburg clinic, is the oldest in the Maryland and has operated without controversy since 1989, state abuse officials said.

Critics of private clinics argue that they charge too much, are poorly monitored, serve as a source of illegal street methadone and have no financial incentive to get their clients off drugs. An episode of the "60 Minutes" news magazine broadcast on CBS Sunday night outlined many of those alleged abuses.

Mr. Gimbel, an advocate of non-profit drug treatment subsidized and controlled by the government, said he fears that the profit-making clinics are "going to draw addicts to this whole region."

Methadone clinics do have the potential for explosive public reaction. When the county tried to open one in Dundalk in 1989, angry public reaction forced it to close within a week.

The county-supervised nonprofit program in Timonium subsequently was expanded to handle the eastern county addicts. Called Awakenings, the Timonium clinic now serves 294 clients, according to Thomas J. Penn, its director.

Mr. Gimbel, himself a former addict and methadone abuser, said there is no need for more methadone dispensaries in the county. The profit-making clinics, he said, will merely siphon off the addicts who can afford to pay, leaving the rest in government subsidized programs that charge only what an addict can afford. For example, Awakenings in Timonium charges addicts from $11.60 to $58 per week.

Open ARMMS Inc., the Landover-based firm that wants to open a methadone clinic in the Pulaski Industrial Park in Rosedale, plans to charge $70 a week, according to William N. Wallace, a partner in the firm.

Mr. Wallace said he hopes to open in late spring. Open ARMMS first planned to open in White Marsh, but decided against that after meeting with local officials and residents who opposed the idea.

While private clinics are more efficient than government-run clinics, he argued, "nobody wants it in their back yard."

Mr. Wallace insisted that his business would have to operate by strict federal and Maryland standards and would be monitored by state officials. In addition, he said, the clinic will offer counseling and other medical services.

The prospective York Road clinic would be operated James E. Hodges, a pharmacist and former state drug abuse official who said he is now pastor of the North East A.M.E. church, which operates from his home.

Although a letter he sent to Mr. Gimbel Feb. 10 states that he "will seek approval to treat heroin addicts with methadone," Mr. Hodges said yesterday that methadone would not be the main thrust of his operation.

He said his new office would serve as both a church and a "compulsive behavior clinic" devoted mainly to nicotine addiction.

"We're not that interested in methadone," he said and added, "I am not in this for making money."

Mr. Gimbel said that Metwork has also expressed interest in expanding to a site on Philadelphia Road in Rosedale, but state officials have not received an application. Metwork officials did not return a reporter's calls yesterday.

With only sporadic monitoring by the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, Mr. Gimbel said, the private clinics are open to abuses by addicts hungry for drugs to use and to sell.

Currently, he said, Baltimore County has 586 residents in methadone treatment.

Sharon Dow, chief of planning and policy review for the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, said her agency has never denied an application by a profit-making methadone clinic. She said the state agency "hasn't talked about whether it's good or bad" to treat drug addicts in these facilities.

She said applicants go first to the federal Food and Drug Administration and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, then to the state. All three agencies coordinate the approval process, she said, and the state can recommend approval or denial.

But the criteria for approval are all technical, she said, and state officials never ask whether clinics might be too close to one another.

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