Grant to fund short-term treatment for heroin addicts

City methadone program to aid those on waiting list

September 15, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

The city will be able to provide temporary assistance for hundreds of city heroin addicts stuck on long waiting lists for comprehensive and residential drug treatment under a $1 million federal grant announced yesterday by Baltimore officials.

The money will pay for interim methadone treatment for about 1,200 addicts over the next year -- giving Baltimore the largest such program in the nation, according to Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner.

"This is really important," Beilenson said. "The bottom line is that we want to get people off the street and into a supportive environment."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the grant to Baltimore Substance Abuse System Inc., a quasi-governmental group that oversees the city's drug treatment efforts.

The group will monitor the program, which will provide methadone to participants seven days a week. Methadone is a synthetic narcotic that suppresses the side effects of opiate withdrawal; many addicts require regular doses for many years. After four months -- the limit for interim programs under federal law -- addicts will be encouraged to enroll in extended treatment programs to help provide a more complete recovery.

About 65,000 people are battling drug addiction in Baltimore, but a chronic shortage of treatment slots -- about 20,000 exist citywide -- has hindered recovery efforts, officials said. Most programs in the city are operating at 105 percent to 120 percent of capacity. About 55 addicts a day are referred to waiting lists.

"Most people who get put on a waiting list never make it to drug treatment," Beilenson said. "This is a much better way to stabilize someone and help them make it to that next step."

A three-year study of interim methadone treatment by the Friends Research Institute of Baltimore found that 80 percent of participants sought comprehensive treatment, said Dr. Robert Schwartz, the nonprofit institute's medical director.

"The study showed the benefit of interim methadone treatment," Schwartz said yesterday during a news conference at Man Alive Research Inc., a treatment facility in the south part of Charles Village.

Schwartz said that many heroin addicts want help. By providing methadone treatment -- even on an interim basis -- the city can show that it is "willing to get them help."

"It's like first aid," Schwartz said. "It keeps them committed to drug treatment."

Man Alive clients, some of whom volunteered to talk about their addictions, said an interim methadone program might have helped them earlier.

Linda Jones, 47, of Baltimore said she used heroin for 15 years before stopping three years ago. She said she found a waiting list almost every time she sought treatment; even if she put her name on a list, she was unlikely to follow up.

"I wanted to get clean, but then something would happen," Jones said. "I got shot. Then I got depressed and I felt helpless and I turned to drugs again."

She said she has friends who need interim methadone treatment. "I know a lot of people who don't want to be out there," Jones said.

About 425 addicts, most of them on existing waiting lists, could begin treatment very soon under the federal grant, officials said. At Man Alive -- one of five medical methadone treatment providers participating in the grant program -- the interview process for participants has begun.

"We are trying to get on the ball," said Mark Arledge, program coordinator at Man Alive.

Arledge and others said they don't expect to have any trouble absorbing interim program participants into comprehensive programs that include mental health counseling, medical aid and job training.

Sinai Hospital Addiction Recovery Program, Reach Mobile Health Services, Daybreak Treatment Program, and the Johns Hopkins University Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit will also participate in the grant program.

Future funding for the interim methadone program is uncertain, but Beilenson said he will work with federal and state elected officials to find new funding sources.

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