Balto. County to expand methadone treatment

Officials OK growth, but haven't allowed private clinics to open

November 29, 1999|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Sandwiched between an auto-parts store and a home entertainment shop, the drab building off York Road in Timonium is easily overlooked.

Cars drive up. Men and women slip through glass doors. After a while, they go on their way, anonymous amid the bustle of chain restaurants, discount retailers and gas stations.

But neighbors of the nondescript edifice at 2 Aylesbury Road soon could notice more activity.

With little fanfare and less public discussion, Baltimore County is expanding its county-sanctioned methadone treatment facility by more than 50 percent, increasing the number of clients treated there from 285 to 433.

The move is being criticized by private methadone providers that have fought for years to establish for-profit facilities in Baltimore County, only to be denied because of zoning laws and the county's insistence that more treatment space was not needed.

"I've been trying to open a program in the county for 20 years now. They turn me down every time," said Martin Kaplan, who operates four private clinics in counties surrounding Baltimore. "I'm just mad because it's not fair. They should have to go through the same garbage we go through."

Methadone is the treatment of choice for many heroin users, though the synthetic drug is decried by critics for its addictive properties.

With a growing number of young addicts getting hooked on the increasingly pure heroin slipping into the United States, more treatment slots are needed, says Dr. Sheldon Glass, whose company has held the county contract to treat addicts with methadone since 1991.

"The problem we are seeing is in the 18 to 25 age range," said Glass, who heads Awakenings Counseling Program Inc. "Originally, it was 3 percent of our total, but it has grown to 10 percent over the past several months."

`Inform people'

To cope with the trend, county officials decided this month to relocate three social service programs that shared space in the Aylesbury Road building, leaving more room for the Awakenings program. They never held a community meeting or notified neighbors.

"Expanding it is fine with me, but it's a public issue and they should inform people," said Rob Marsiglia, 24, a computer programmer who works nearby.

On one level, it's easy to understand why county officials didn't: With prisons, landfills and cellular-phone towers, drug-treatment centers are high on the list of things people don't want in their back yards.

But Baltimore County has another reason for playing down the expansion. For years, county leaders maintained that the Timonium office could easily handle all the area's addicts and for-profit providers weren't needed.

Federal lawsuit

One of those private clinics sued county officials for $6.1 million, claiming that through its zoning laws, Baltimore County discriminates against drug addicts in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The county lost an early round of the lawsuit in August, when U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake refused its request to dismiss the claim or rule on it quickly. Important unresolved questions remained about the county's policy for locating methadone clinics, Blake said.

Now that Baltimore County is expanding its clinic, its contention that enough treatment slots exist is undermined.

"The bottom line is it is an acknowledgment by the county that county residents need methadone treatment," said Ellen Weber, an attorney with the Legal Action Center of Washington, which is representing Smith-Berch Inc., a private clinic that filed the federal lawsuit after trying to open in White Marsh in 1997.

`Procedural barriers'

In the area, Baltimore County is unique because it has no private, for-profit methadone providers. Each time one is proposed, public opposition and political muscle thwart the plans.

"I know for a fact that [Baltimore County] treats these programs different than other counties in Maryland, by not allowing them, and by putting in place procedural barriers," Weber said.

It's a damning claim, and one that county officials refuse to answer on the record. Without comment or question, the County Council approved a $368,836 lease for new office space at 10151 York Road in Cockeysville, where the three social services programs will move, from developer Ed St. John this month. Under orders from County Attorney Virginia Barnhart, they won't say anything about the expansion planned for January.

Treatment at the county's subsidized clinic costs as little as $25 a week depending on a patient's income, but private treatment costs at least $70 weekly.

Kaplan, the private methadone provider, is concerned about losing patients to Baltimore County's growing number of relatively cheap slots.

Kaplan treats many Baltimore County residents who are forced to travel to his clinics in other metropolitan area counties. That outflow is well-documented by state figures.

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