After Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency on March 27 for a sudden increase in opioid use, the Boston Public Health Commission is proposing to close the only public methadone clinic in Boston.
The proposal, which has been a consideration of health officials for the past few years, was formally proposed on March 20 and is set to be revisited April 17, following the opening of a fifth private Boston methadone clinic, said BPHC Director of Communications Nick Martin.
“We figured that with the increase in access to methadone therapy that now was a good time to make a transition,” Martin said. “It’s been a topic that’s been on our minds for a few years now but this is the first time that we’ve proposed making the transition.”
Methadone is a synthetic narcotic that is used to reduce the craving for opiates, such as heroin, and the effects of withdrawal symptoms. In a state where heroin addiction, which methadone is used to combat, has caused 185 deaths in the past four months, health officials are attempting to make certain that they will be able to transition as carefully as possible, Martin said.
There are 36 licensed methadone programs statewide, 28 of which are funded by the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services. After the closure, there will be four licensed methadone programs within the City of Boston, said Anne Roach, public relations manager from the Department of Public Health.
“We don’t intend on closing the methadone clinic if we can’t transfer those clients that we’re seeing right now to another provider,” Martin said. “The ultimate goal is to really transition services in a seamless way so that nobody faces any barriers or obstacles in the care they receive. And if that is a problem, then we obviously won’t close the clinic.”
The cost of running the public methadone clinic is $2.5 million per year, and the Commission believes a private distributor could provide the same quality and level of service with more efficiency than the public clinic, which has been experiencing “a funding shortfall” and turning to the city to cover portions of reimbursements not covered by the state, Martin said.
The Commission plans to take the money previously spent on the public methadone clinic and use it to support Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s goal of creating an Office of Recovery Services to expand the resource and referral services provided at the commission.
“Given the advances in treatment options, we have an opportunity to redirect our attention and city resources to areas of need that no other provider can address as well as we can,” Walsh said in a statement Tuesday. “By opening an Office of Recovery Services, we’ll be able … to improve access to care, identify barriers to treatment, and increase outreach efforts to the people that need it most.”
Roach said DPH will be working closely with the BPHC to determine the best course of action for the public methadone clinic.
“The goal is to ensure a smooth transition of all clients to appropriate treatment services, including clients who are uninsured and indigent,” Roach said. “We will work to ensure that there are no barriers to access, so all clients can maintain services without interruption.”
Several residents said the BPHC should not be shutting down the only public methadone clinic in the city.
Louise Bowler, 43, of East Boston, said she is worried about the transition for people who need to start using the private clinics.
“I’ve seen other government facilities in other areas of life shut down, and a lot of people fall into the gaps,” she said. “They would need to have someone following the people until they got established in a private clinic.”
Abhishek Sinha, 24, of the West End, said any facility that helps people should remain open.
“If it’s helping people, clinics should definitely not be shut down,” he said. “You cannot just say that you close one down to benefit another thing that is unrelated.”
Joseph DelRio, 29, of East Boston, said public programs are an important aspect of the community, and BPHC should not be shutting it down.
“There should be public programs always, and they should be larger than the private ones,” he said. “It’s always good to have a public funded entity that provides opportunity for those who actually want to change themselves.”