BANGOR, Maine — An addiction treatment center has applied to significantly increase the number of patients it serves, potentially renewing a heated debate over Bangor’s role in combating the region’s drug problems.
Penobscot County Metro Treatment Center is a methadone clinic in the Maine Square Mall on Hogan Road, where it has been operating since 2005. The clinic has a licensing cap of 300 patients but wants to boost that to 500.
“We presently have a wait list numbering 173 patients, and we are contacted daily by at least three to five individuals seeking treatment,” Lisa Davis, the center’s director, wrote in an expansion application to the city. “Many of these have been waiting for over 120 days to be admitted.”
“Over the past couple months, we were contacted by at least 65 individuals seeking treatment,” Davis added.
Even with the high demand for medication-assisted treatment such as Suboxone and methadone, the proposal could revive a contentious debate in Bangor over the load the city carries in helping addicted Mainers.
Bangor, a city of about 33,000 residents, has three treatment centers licensed to serve up to a combined 1,500 clients. Each of those centers are operating at or near capacity.
Portland, South Portland and Westbrook have one center each, and those centers serve the same total number of patients as Bangor’s clinics, despite the fact that those communities have a combined population of nearly 110,000. Waterville and Lewiston centers are licensed for 500 clients each; and centers in Calais and Rockland 300 each.
Three years ago, Penobscot Metro proposed expanding its Suboxone treatment, prompting city councilors to pass a 180-day moratorium on the expansion of Suboxone services in the city. The vote was 7-2.
Councilors were concerned about the fact that so many people relied on services in Bangor and didn’t have options in their home communities. Some people struggling with addiction uproot their lives and move to Bangor to be in closer proximity to their treatments, taking them away from families and support systems. In many cases, their travel costs are covered by the state.
“It is not fair to the addicted to have to travel for hours to receive treatment nor is it fair to the citizens of Bangor,” Pauline Civiello, a former councilor who spearheaded the debate over the centralization of addiction treatment services in Bangor, said Thursday.
The council’s concerns prompted the creation of a Substance Abuse Community Working Group, a coalition of addiction, recovery, health care and public safety officials that created a set of recommendations on how to counter and combat addiction problems in the area.
Out of that group came An Act To Reduce Costs and Increase Access to Methadone Treatment in the 126th Legislature. It would have required the Department of Health and Human Services to increase the number of federally qualified health centers that provide methadone treatment services, and required enrollment at the clinic closest to the person’s home. The bill died after it failed to garner enough support from lawmakers on the Committee on Health and Human Services.
The working group also recommended that Bangor not allow local expansion of clinics until more regional approaches are explored.
“We have to find a way to balance the needs of people seeking treatment with the capacity for this community,” City Councilor Ben Sprague, who was among the councilors who faced this issue in 2013, said Thursday. “Undoubtedly it will be a major debate.”
In Penobscot Metro’s application, Davis states that 67 percent of the clinic’s patients are Penobscot County residents. Another 14 percent come from Hancock County, 7 percent from Waldo, 4 percent from Piscataquis, and the remainder split between Washington, Somerset, Aroostook, Knox and Lincoln counties.
She said 62 of the clinic’s 300 clients live in Bangor, and another 65 come from nearby towns including Brewer, Hermon, Old Town, Winterport and Milford.
The city also would need to host a public hearing before making any decision. Clinic officials expect to meet with a council committee on July 11.
“We’re not anti-treatment, we just want a solution that helps people the most,” Sprague said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.