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Maine's Largest Substance Abuse Treatment Center Shutting Down

WESTBROOK, Maine - The state's largest substance abuse treatment center will close its doors by the end of August, and attempt to find placements for about 250 patients who are being treated with Suboxone for their opiate addiction. Officials with Mercy Recovery Center say the decision, made public late this afternoon, is the result of decreasing insurance coverage and declining Medicaid reimbursement rates.

The announcement comes at a time when deaths from heroin and other opiates are at an all-time high, and when the LePage administration is proposing to eliminate MaineCare coverage for methadone.  Methadone and Suboxone are considered the best medication options for treating opiate addiction.  

"We are doing a programmatic change in that we're not going to have a dedicated addiction clinic.  We are changing the scope and scale of addiction programs for the community that we serve," says Dr. Scott Rusk.

Rusk is the vice president and chief medical officer for Mercy Hospital, which runs the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook.  Rusk says an in-patient treatment program will be moved from Westbrook to Portland, along with several group therapy programs. 

But as of Aug. 30, the free-standing addiction medicine clinic will be gone. Rusk says that affects about 90 staff members, about half of whom he hopes can be reassigned.  It also affects about 250 Suboxone patients.

"It's very sad and I can't tell you how upset everybody is," Rusk says. "We've been struggling for many years with trying to maintain a sustainable program up there, but at this point we are seeing accelerated reimbursement loss for everybody, such that we've been in the red for so long that we can no longer support subsidizing the program."

"It's a tragedy for patients, it's really sad for staff.  More so, what a loss to the state. Oh, my goodness," says addiction specialist Dr. Mark Publicker. Publicker has worked at the Recovery Center for the past 11 years.  He says the lack of insurance coverage for patients, the LePage administration's decision to eliminate coverage for certain categories of patients last year, and the repeated cuts to providers' reimbursement rates have all contributed to an unsustainable model of treatment.  

Publicker is worried about finding alternative Suboxone treatment for his patients.  Many treatment providers have stopped offering the service in Maine. "I saw patients this morning that I have been taking care of for years who have done fantastically," he says. "Now, I've got to call them up and say, 'Sorry.' I'm going to figure out a way to accommodate them."

Dr. Rusk says some Suboxone patients may be able to find support and treatment with their primary care physicians, but only those doctors who have been trained and certified to do Suboxone treatment.

Jim Cohen, an attorney who represents a coalition of methadone providers in Maine, says the news is concerning.  He says it's unclear whether some of the clinics could take on some of Mercy's  patients.

"The ability for methadone clinics to provide services to these patients will depend, in large part, on whether patients have Medicaid coverage or other insurance coverage or are able to provide private pay for their services," Cohen says. "And we would be concerned about the possibility of patients not having access to treatment."

Cohen says methadone providers do understand and sympathize with the difficult situation Mercy is facing, given the increasing cuts to services available for patients.

To that point, Rusk says the decision to close Mercy Recover Center  is not something Mercy wants to do.  Instead, he says, it's something the hospital absolutely needs to do.   

A call to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse seeking comment for this story was not returned by airtime.