Drug treatment cuts threaten residential programs, providers say

Counselor Bruce Gardner, far right, leads a group therapy session on Wednesday, March 9, 2011, at Wellspring's residential substance-abuse treatment facility for men in Bangor. State budget cuts may force Wellspring and similiar area treatment facilities to severely curtail or even terminate services in the upcoming fiscal year. Wellspring also has a treatment facility for women as well as offering outpatient treatment services.
Counselor Bruce Gardner, far right, leads a group therapy session on Wednesday, March 9, 2011, at Wellspring's residential substance-abuse treatment facility for men in Bangor. State budget cuts may force Wellspring and similiar area treatment facilities to severely curtail or even terminate services in the upcoming fiscal year. Wellspring also has a treatment facility for women as well as offering outpatient treatment services.
Posted March 09, 2011, at 10:07 p.m.
Last modified March 10, 2011, at 9:33 a.m.

Maine has among the highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the nation. But providers of substance abuse treatment here are reeling after learning late last week that funding for residential treatment through the Maine Office of Substance Abuse may be cut altogether.

The approximately $6 million funding loss reflects reductions in Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial budget, and agencies across the state say they will be forced to close their doors if the plan is adopted.

At the Wellspring program in Bangor, executive director Pat Kimball said the agency would  lose more than $500,000, or about 40 percent of its annual budget.

“There is no way I can make that up from other sources,” she said.

That means Wellspring, which has helped alcoholics and drug addicts in the Bangor area for more than 40 years, will be forced to shutter its men’s and women’s residential programs, she said. The programs have a total of about 30 beds and are always full with a waiting list of about 50 people, Kimball said.

“People who need residential care are the most chronically ill people in the state,” Kimball said at a press conference on Wednesday. “If we close our doors today, over half our clients would return to jail, one-third would be homeless and only 13 percent would be able to live with family or friends.”

Wellspring’s 180-day program helps addicts step away from the dysfunctional influences in their lives, Kimball said, and brings them into a community of acceptance, support and high expectations. They attend twice-daily therapeutic groups and daily 12-step meetings, participate in individual therapy, perform daily chores and volunteer in the community. The program helps them achieve and maintain sobriety and supports their efforts to find safe housing, mend broken relationships, finish their educations and find work.

“These people cannot survive in outpatient care,” Kimball said.

Most have tried and failed to stop drinking and using drugs several times before entering a residential program, she said, and desperately need the structure and respite they find at Wellspring.  About 70 percent of Wellspring’s clients finish the 180-day program, well above the 45 percent required by the contract with the state.

Also affected in the Bangor area would be the Elijah House and Derek House residential programs at Manna Inc.

“The Office of Substance Abuse is not trying to close our doors; they’re just taking away all our funding,” said director Bill Rae, drawing rueful laughter at the news conference. Rae said he would lose about $1 million, his entire budget for the two programs.

“They are taking away the choices people need to get clean, and it’s deplorable,” he said.

The proposed cut of  $4.4 million from the Fund for Healthy Maine also will result in the loss of an additional $1.36 million in federal funds, according to Office of Substance abuse director Guy Cousins. In combination with other proposed cuts and the expiration of some federal grants, Cousins said his agency’s budget will drop from about $37 million in the current fiscal year to about $24 million next year if the budget is approved as is.

“We are trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got in front of us,” he said on Tuesday. “These are not the decisions we want to make; they are the ones we have to make.”

Cousins said there is no question that the substance abuse treatment community will be hit hard if OSA stops funding residential programs. The agencies are not doing a bad job, he said, but residential care is expensive and savings must be taken somewhere.

Cousins said three short-stay programs in Aroostook County, Bangor and Portland will continue to be funded, providing emergency drug and alcohol detoxification. Beyond that, he said, Mainers seeking assistance recovering from drug and alcohol addiction will find support through OSA-funded outpatient services, 12-step programs and other groups.

In Bangor, the Hope House shelter run by Penobscot Community Health Care is one of the three designated detox centers that would continue to be funded in the proposed budget. The Rev. Bob Carlson, PCHC president, said the 69-bed Hope House already operates in that capacity but will feel the strain if residential programs in the area close.

“Losing these programs will drive more people into homelessness and back into their addictions,” he said. While outpatient treatment for drug and alcohol addictions can be effective for people whose lives are otherwise stable, he said, “if you are homeless, everything else is secondary.”

Other residential programs affected by the loss of OSA funding would include the Day One program for adolescents in Hollis, Phoenix Academy for adolescents in Augusta, and Crossroads for Women in Windham and Portland.

David Faulkner, executive director at Day One, said substance abuse treatment agencies have been hit by multiple budget cuts in recent years and have managed to stay in business by trimming staff and services. But the current proposal is more severe, he said, and agencies like his aren’t making idle threats when they say they can’t live with it.

“This is not smoke and mirrors,” he said. “I don’t know any of them that can survive.”

Lawmakers on the Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees are reviewing the DHHS budget in public hearings all this week. The Office of Substance Abuse budget is on the schedule for Friday. The hearings can be monitored live online at  http://www.maine.gov/legis/

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