- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

ROANOKE (AP) — Three methadone clinics have opened in western Virginia, and more could be arriving as the region tries to heal from prescription-drug abuse that peaked about three years ago with the emergence of OxyContin.

Methadone clinics typically meet resistance from nearby residents who fear that an influx of addicts will bring crime into their neighborhoods. Opponents also say the treatment — which costs about $10 a day and can last for years — often becomes a business run by corporations more concerned with the bottom line than addicts’ recovery.

“It’s a cash cow,” said Michael Bragg, a lawyer who represents residents opposed to a proposed clinic in Washington County. “You get someone hooked on methadone and you don’t want to cure them. You want to keep them on the methadone and keep the money coming in.”

While methadone providers dispute that, they are clearly part of a growing business.

Since March 2000, when the region’s first clinic began treating addicts in Galax, two other clinics have opened in Tazewell County and Charlottesville. Two companies have announced plans for clinics in the Roanoke Valley. A third firm filed an application for a state license and quietly surveyed the methadone market before putting its plans on hold. Yet another clinic is proposed in Washington County.

What is happening in western Virginia has been playing out on a national scale over the past decade.

In 1993, 775 methadone clinics operating in 40 states treated 115,000 people addicted to opium-based drugs such as heroin and OxyContin, said Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence in New York.

Today, more than 1,100 clinics in 44 states are treating 205,000 patients, Mr. Parrino said.

By downing a dose of liquid methadone once a day, opioid addicts can escape their cravings for illegal drugs and avoid withdrawal symptoms. Methadone, a synthetic narcotic developed during World War II as an alternative to morphine, also is prescribed as a painkiller.

Although patients do not get high when they use the drug properly, they do become dependent on it. Some methadone patients will take years before they can stay off the drug. Others need it indefinitely.

Methadone clinics are governed by extensive state and federal regulations. They also are required by law to be accredited by one of several agencies, and they must obtain a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration to prescribe methadone.

James Sikkema, executive director of Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, said as long as methadone clinics provide quality care and work well with other drug treatment programs, their profits should not be an issue.

“People can make money and provide quality services and do the right thing; there’s nothing wrong with that,” Mr. Sikkema said. “The challenge is not to compromise quality and services out of concern for the dollar, which is hard.”

Joycelyn Woods, president of the National Alliance of Methadone Advocates, agrees.

“The issue is: Are you providing comprehensive treatment so the patients can get their lives together and become productive members of the community?” Miss Woods said.

If the answer to that question is yes, methadone advocates say, the real profits go to the community.

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