State seeking methadone for 280 patients

Posted Aug. 20, 2010, at 9:21 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — The long-term ramifications of Thursday’s abrupt closure of the Turning Tide methadone clinic in Rockland are still being sorted out.

In the meantime, the state Office of Substance Abuse had the unenviable task on Friday of finding medicine for about 280 patients in recovery.

“We’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from other clinics, and we’re using all our resources to ensure a smooth transition,” OSA Director Guy Cousins said. “As challenging as the situation is, we’re progressing.”

By 1 p.m. Friday, Cousins said 82 percent of Turning Tide’s patients had made contact with another clinic to receive treatment. That left another 50 or so, but Cousins said the day was not over yet.

“In less than 24 hours, that’s about as good as you could hope,” he said.

Turning Tide was shuttered on Thursday morning after a federal Drug Enforcement Administration investigation determined that the facility posed an immediate danger to public health and safety. That threat has not been identified because the investigation is ongoing, according to Anthony Pettigrew, spokesman for the DEA in Boston.

After the DEA-mandated closure, the state permanently revoked the clinic’s license. A group of federal, state and local officials seized all methadone from the clinic after patients were administered their doses on Thursday.

Employees at Turning Tide spent the remainder of Thursday contacting clients and referring them to other methadone programs in Bangor, Waterville, Calais, South Portland, Portland and Westbrook. Cousins said local staff remained in Rockland on Friday to handle any walk-in clients.

“The entire methadone treatment community has really pulled together to support this transition,” he said.

Many Turning Tide patients were transferred to one of three clinics in the Bangor area. Alan Comeau, spokesman for the methadone clinic at The Acadia Hospital, said late Friday morning that the facility had not yet seen a big spike.

“We would be happy to be available, and we would treat them as we would treat anyone that comes to us for care,” he said.

The closure of Turning Tide came shortly after its owner and licensed operator, Angel Fuller-McMahan, and clinic counselor Carol Gardiner were charged with federal drug offenses. Both women had previous drug convictions.

Methadone is used as a replacement therapy for illicit prescription painkillers and illegal drugs such as heroin. Most patients are given daily doses to guard against pain and sickness associated with sudden withdrawal, but some patients are allowed take-home doses. A number of Turning Tide patients were take-home users, ac-cording to Cousins.

The state Office of Substance Abuse works with clinics to construct emergency plans. In most instances, Cousins said, that means a snowstorm or other disaster that might keep a facility closed.

“This is the first time something like this has happened,” he said. “[Turning Tide] had a plan in place, and we were able to implement it with some adjustments and support around that.”

Clinics are heavily regulated by federal agencies and licensed by the state, so it is unlikely that another provider could step in quickly in Rockland or the surrounding area.

“Our focus right now is making sure we get through the short-term immediate needs and then start thinking about how these patients are going to continue getting services long term,” Cousins said.

Comeau said Acadia could handle some new clients, but the clinic is plenty busy already.

“Transportation is always an issue. We have clients now who make a really long trip, but it’s a priority for them to stay in recovery,” he said.

Some are wondering how the state granted Turning Tide or Fuller-McMahan a license, but Cousins said if applicants meet all the criteria, the state cannot deny them.

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