LUBEC, Maine — The Regional Medical Center at Lubec has made alternative plans to take care of recovering drug addicts who were in a treatment program, according to Town Administrator John Sutherland.
Sutherland, who was directed by the town’s Board of Selectmen last week to contact officials at the medical center after the physician who had been caring for the patients raised an alarm, said Tuesday that he discussed the situation with center director Marilyn Hughes.
According to Dr. Benjamin Newman of Winter Harbor, who formerly ran the program for recovering drug addicts, the medical center was in danger of being unable to provide timely medication for the patients. He expressed his concerns in a Sept. 12 email sent to Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith and Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, who is a member of the medical center’s board of directors.
Hughes, who was out of the office last Friday, did not immediately return multiple phone calls left that day and early this week about the situation.
Sutherland indicated he was satisfied after discussing the issue with Hughes this week.
“They’ve got a plan in place,” said Sutherland. He noted that the patients have been referred to another clinic in Calais, and a Jonesport physician also is seeing some of the patients.
“She assured me they’re working on a third option for long-term care. … So it seems like they’re on top of this issue,” he said.
Asked why the medical center apparently was scrambling at the last minute to take care of the patients last Thursday, Sutherland suggested that was just “one person’s opinion.”
Sutherland acknowledged that he reported his discussion with Hughes to the Board of Selectmen in an email.
But Selectwoman Joanne Case said she wasn’t satisfied with the report.
“I’m just worried,” she said. “I’m worried about the fact that there’s something going on.”
Case brought the issue to the Board of Selectmen at its meeting last Thursday evening and read the email Newman wrote to Smith and Burns.
The clinic did not notify Newman why his contract was not renewed, noted Case.
“He deserves an explanation and so do his patients,” she said.
Case suggested that a frequent turnover of provider physicians was a possible overarching issue at the medical center. She recently received a call from an upset elderly woman who goes to the medical center for health care and has had five different doctors in three years.
“I’m not saying we’re the only small clinic around that faces this,” she said.
“Hopefully they’ll find more providers … I don’t know,” said Case. “I’d just like to see them resolve this issue. And maybe they feel it is resolved. I don’t know.”
Two members of the medical center’s board of directors, Burns and Marcia Jackson, did not immediately return phone calls Monday inquiring about the medical center and last Thursday’s events.
Newman said Tuesday that he never heard back from Hughes in response to questions he raised about what would become of his patients.
“It is not unusual, in my experience, for [Regional Medical Center at Lubec] to know about a pending crisis and only deal with it at the last moment when their hand is forced by the situation,” Newman told the Bangor Daily News via email.
In response to the plans that Hughes made, as described by Sutherland, Newman wrote, “The Suboxone solution that Ms. Hughes has negotiated, in my opinion, gets the clinic off the hook, but it is a poor one for the patients and the fine, dedicated staff at [Regional Medical Center at Lubec] that are devoted to caring for these patients.”
The medical center’s drug addiction program has about 20 patients in various stages of recovery from opiates. Newman was the only physician authorized to prescribe Suboxone — a narcotic analgesic used to treat opiate addiction — to the patients and was scheduled to see them Sept. 12.
However, Newman’s contract with the clinic was not renewed in August, and his contract expired Aug. 31. According to Newman, his lawyer notified Hughes on Sept. 9 that Newman would no longer be returning to the clinic.
He did speak with Hughes by phone Sept. 12, but she did not know how the patients were going to be cared for, Newman said.
Newman received a copy of an email from Hughes to Burns and others dated 7:20 p.m. Sept. 12, indicating that the clinic had made arrangements to take care of his patients. He said Hughes wrote the following: “Please be assured that I and my staff have taken appropriate steps to ensure that the acute and ongoing health care needs of each of Dr. Newman’s patients are being attended to.”
“Senator [Burns], this is a crisis,” Newman wrote in his email Sept. 12. “Abandonment of a patient or patients is a very serious event and it is clearly malpractice. Please check this out with the board’s attorney. If any of these patients die because they could not get their suboxone on time, you will have bought the farm.”
In an added note addressed to Smith, Newman warned that the clinic’s action could be responsible for a “crime wave.” If his patients did not receive Suboxone, Newman said that they would become sick and commit crimes in order to obtain money to buy drugs on the street.