Vendor to run drug center

Without state's funding of operations, Carroll will hire private group


Lacking state assistance to cover operating costs, Carroll County officials say they will hire a private vendor to run a planned $3.3 million drug treatment center in Sykesville, shifting the focus of the project to provide shorter stays for more patients.

County officials, who had pushed the project for more than six years, had hoped the state would help fund the facility's expected $1.8 million in annual operating expenses. However, the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration recently informed them that the state would not provide the money.

As a result, the county has scrapped plans to staff the center with Health Department employees and, at the state's urging, agreed to use workers from the private sector.

"We think it puts Carroll County in a tremendous position to be able to control the care not only in an effective but efficient means," said Peter F. Luongo, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.

The county has budgeted $950,000 a year to operate the center, up from the $750,000 that officials had expected to contribute. The remaining costs can be covered by the insurance, Medicaid, and room-and-board payments that the private contractors can collect from the patients, Luongo said.

The Sykesville facility will embody a less medically intensive model for residential addiction services than the drug abuse administration now recommends, Luongo said. The concept includes doubling the number of beds planned for the 15,000-square-foot center.

Despite their original expectations, Carroll officials said the suggestion about privatizing the facility didn't catch them by surprise.

"It's consistent with the way the state has been operating ever since the Ehrlich administration went into office," County Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said recently.

"We have to try to pull the private sector and government together, as long as people take a long, hard look at what we're getting," he said.

Based on this experience, county officials are trying to predict how the state will fund such social services in the future.

"Certainly our expectations a couple of years ago are different from where we are now," said Ted Zaleski, Carroll's director of management and budget. "There's still a lot to be talked about. We're trying to understand what the state is and is not going to be doing for these services."

The state still will contribute nearly $1.1 million toward the center's construction, which is scheduled to begin next month on the 7-acre parcel on the grounds of Springfield Hospital Center. The center is expected to open in August next year.

"We have totally revamped the whole model," said Jolene Sullivan, county director of citizen services. "Rather than the state running it - which is highly personnel-driven - we'll go out to bid on specific treatment services. It's far more effective to have a nonprofit or company other than the state run it."

Without growing in size, the building will house 48 beds instead of 24. A kitchen has been cut from the plans because a vendor will bring in food, Sullivan said.

When the facility was conceived, it was to be a medically centered program with 24-hour nurses who would serve patients for up to two years. Now the overhauled program will last six to nine months, or at most a year, Sullivan said.

In a recent presentation to the county commissioners, Luongo described a prototype: the Avery Road Treatment Center in Rockville, a short-term drug rehab program that Montgomery County has operated through a private vendor since 1990.

More local residents are served through this model, Luongo said. More than 80 percent of the Rockville center's patients are county residents; the insurance payments that the vendor collects from them make up 15 percent of the center's annual budget.

Hiring a vendor would eliminate some Health Department jobs in the county. Larry L. Leitch, the county's health officer, said his department might be more or less forced into the new model.

"When a local health department runs a facility, with cost of living and step increases for all employees every year, less and less money is available for operating the program," Leitch said. "A private vendor doesn't have the same salaries or benefits. No - they're looking for a profit."

County residents and officials believe a long-term drug treatment facility is desperately needed. Deaths by heroin overdose, particularly of four county teenagers, first made headlines in 1998, said Linda Auerback, the county's assistant substance abuse prevention coordinator.

Since 2003, opiate-related admissions to Carroll Hospital Center have shot up, said Teresa A. Fletcher, the hospital's spokeswoman. The hospital had 430 opiate-related admissions in 2004 and 258 in the first half of 2005 - the most recently available data, Fletcher said.

With three more heroin-related county deaths reported in mid-April, Auerback said, the center gained further impetus.

"Twenty-eight days for treatment is not enough," Auerback said. "People come out and unfortunately relapse. If you're in long-term care you stand a much better chance of recovering and staying clean."

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