A nonprofit methadone clinic closed this summer, and left some patients high and dry
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Patients at Nevada Treatment Center got more than the usual dose of life-changing material when they arrived at the clinic not long ago.
On June 1, the oldest nonprofit methadone clinic in Southern Nevada told its 300 patients it would close in 30 days. For good. That would leave the Las Vegas area with one nonprofit facility — the Adelson Clinic — to serve all the indigent methadone users in the valley. Eight other for-profit clinics serve patients with insurance and those who can pay about $5 a day for their methadone fix.
But the center’s closure stranded at least one patient without the means to pay for treatment. Allen Manson has been clean for four years, since he quit heroin for the last time and started on methadone.
“The last four years have been the best of my life,” Manson said.
The methadone allowed him to quit heroin and hold down a regular job as an instructor at a poker school. He got off the street and out of the heroin hustle. Although he had his reservations about methadone treatment, it seemed to deliver on its promises — enabling him to lead a normal life without the pain of heroin withdrawal.
Then, in January, he was diagnosed with cancer. He got sick and couldn’t work. But that didn’t matter to the Nevada Treatment Center, which continued to provide his methadone regardless of his ability to pay.
When it closed, Manson went to the Adelson Clinic and said he was turned away. He said the clinic asked him to provide extensive documentation of his poverty before it gave him subsidized methadone. And it requires patients to pay for treatment, on a sliding scale adjusted for income. But Manson was already selling his food stamps for bus fare and couldn’t pay anything for treatment. The clinic asked for financial information from everyone in his household, but Manson was staying rent-free with an elderly friend, and didn’t have the heart to ask her for her tax returns.
Shirley Linzy, the clinic director at Adelson, said the facility took every patient from the Nevada Treatment Center with a documented inability to pay. In fact, the influx of patients is stretching the Adelson Clinic’s resources. The clinic receives enough funds from the state to supply about 133 patients with methadone treatment, but it has more than 200 indigent patients on the rolls.
The Nevada Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Agency (SAPTA) provides funding for methadone treatment at the Adelson Clinic. The agency said it increased that amount by $78,960 and is processing an additional $57, 480.
That money will buy a lot of methadone, but the real question is whether one nonprofit clinic can handle the demand. Opiate abuse is a large and growing problem in Southern Nevada. Older heroin addicts like Manson have seen a sudden influx of younger users in their 20s and 30s, people who got hooked on prescription pain pills and switched to cheaper black-tar heroin. A spokeswoman for SAPTA said 1,300 heroin addicts are currently in treatment in Nevada, and that the drug ranks fourth after alcohol, meth and marijuana among users in licensed recovery programs.
But it’s hard to track the exact number of methadone patients. The state regulates for-profit methadone clinics, but it doesn’t track the number of people in these programs. Mary Woods, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said only about 1 percent of addicts seek treatment in any given year.
Methadone blocks the craving for heroin, but doesn’t impair the user. Patients have to make daily pilgrimages to clinics to get their doses in liquid form. Counselors usually provide support for patients who want to wean off methadone treatment, but some never make it, said Patty Chambers, the nurse in charge of the State Opioid Treatment Authority.
“Some people will always be on methadone for the rest of their lives,” she said. “I think of it like a diabetic who requires insulin every day. It’s a drug they need to survive.”
Representatives from the Nevada Treatment Center couldn’t be reached for comment. Chambers said the owners, who opened the clinic in 1973, could no longer afford to operate the facility, which regularly lost money. Even Manson admitted that he had an outstanding bill of $3,000 before his last relapse, and before his cancer diagnosis rendered him completely unable to pay. No one ever tried to collect or use the debt against him when he returned to treatment, he added.
Since the clinic closed, he has been at the end of his rope, he said. The withdrawal, coupled with cancer, has made the last few months virtually intolerable. Some of the other patients at the center might have ended up back on the streets, using heroin and committing crimes. Others are hustling and begging for the $5 fee for methadone treatment.
“The methadone is almost worse than heroin because of the way it gets in your bones,” he said. “I know a lot of those guys from the center are back on heroin.”