A Look Inside Covington's New Methadone Clinic
NKY Med Clinic will open on or near July 1.
The controversial for-profit methadone clinic will occupy the space at 1717 Madison Avenue that previously housed a Save-a-Lot grocery store.
With Northern Kentucky dubbed "ground zero" of the heroin crisis creeping across the Commonwealth, those behind the clinic see it as the answer to the region's growing concerns.
"I think the community is ready for us to be here," said Holly Broce, regional director of Pinnacle Treatment Centers located in Kentucky and Virginia. "There are heroin overdoses on a daily basis and hopefully we can be part of the solution."
The road to opening the clinic was a long one for Ron Washington, now part-owner of NKY Med Clinic. Originally he was partnered with Dr. Gary Shearer who ended up seeing his medical license suspended following a raid on his Florence office. Media reports at the time indictaed that Shearer's troubles started with his application to open a methadone clinic.
Following Shearer's legal troubles, Washington became sole owner of the planned clinic. Six weeks later, it was acquired by Pinnacle Treatment Centers.
"I searched for an organization that would help to combat the growing problem we are facing in our community," Washington said at the time. "Pinnacle has a proven record of success.''
The City of Covington also fought to keep the clinic from opening but in January a Kenton County judge sided with Washington in the zoning dispute.
Kenton County Commonwealth's Attorney Rob Sanders was also critical in an October article at The River City News. "Once the clinic opens in Covington, all those addicts are going to flock here because Covington is considerably closer. It looks as though this clinic will open whether we like it or not so I sincerely hope it's run well and helps some people but I'm not very optimistic," Sanders said at the time.
If addicts do in fact flock to the new clinic, Broce says that her team will be ready to take on the challenge. "I think the community will see results immediately," she said. Broce predicted a drop in criminal activity, an improvement in the unemployment rate, mothers who have lost their children will return to work and regain custody, and there will be less spreading of HIV.
Those are lofty goals but Broce said that Pinnacle has a proven track record in each of the regions it serves. Progress that the clinic makes with its patients will be reported annually in the Kentucky Opiate Replacement Treatment Outcome Study, or KORTOS.
Clinic: Methadone is not a "replacement" for heroin
Broce offered a tour to The River City News to show off the renovation of the former grocery store and also offered to clear up what she views as misconceptions about what the clinic, and its drug, do.
"Part of the fear is that people think we're replacing one drug for another," Broce said.
In fact, she said, methadone does not provide a high sensation for users looking to remove themselves from the grips of heroin addiction. Instead, it blocks the craving for that heroin high. "It helps people to feel normal," she said, comparing methadone to insulin used by diabetics.
One of the concerns raised by members of the community at various forums is that NKY Med Clinic will provide that heroin alternative as a for-profit company. Broce has worked for both non-profit and for-profit agencies and said that the resources provided by Pinnacle could not be replicated in the non-profit sector.
"Unfortunately there's a need for a clinic like this," she said. "We're able to provide a nice facility like this and we're able to expand when we need to."
The renovation of the former grocery store left plenty of room for expansion. So far, the clinic is roughly confined to the front half of the space.
There are multiple waiting rooms, offices, counseling rooms, and examination rooms.
"The nice thing about this location is that the patients will have some privacy," Broce said. The clinic is on Covington's most prominent street but sits off to the west side of it. Broce said the company hopes to work with nearby neighborhood associations and to host open houses for the community to see what will go on inside.
Treatment is lengthy and comprehensive
Kicking a heroin addiction is no easy task if the eighteen to twenty-four months expected treatment program at NKY Med Clinic is any indication.
Patients will come in for an initial interview, undergo a full medical assessment, detail their family, drug, and mental histories to a doctor, provide a urine sample, and undergo tests for pregnancy, tuberculosis, and blood work. Then the patient will have a physical exam.
It will take approximately two hours for a patient to be evaluated and determined to be suited for the program. Patients must have been dependent on heroin for at least one year.
From there, the patients begin to be educated about what Broce called the disease of addiction. They will attend individual and group therapy on site. A doctor will determine the appropriate level of methadone a patient needs in order to place the person at what Broce called "a therapeutic level".
The average treatment is eighteen months. "Once stabilized, we can begin to taper them off methadone," Broce said. First, patients navigate to another drug called suboxone.
NKY Med Clinic will continue to treat recovering heroin addicts for an addition six months. "That's pretty much unheard of in treatment facilities," she said.
"Every patient is different. Some enter and are able to complete it in eighteen to twenty-four months," she said. "There are others using bags of heroin daily and may have done more damage."
Returning users to being productive citizens
In addition to methadone treatment, NKY Med Clinic will also work toward returning its patients to being productive citizens and able to work. "As long as they are doing that then we see that as a successful patient," Broce said. Case managers will be assigned to each patient and NKY Med will collaborate with other local agencies for the "vocational rehabilitation" aspect of its treatment.
Because methadone aims to make its patients "feel normal", some will be treated before they go to work. Regulations surrounding such clinics require them to open at least two hours that are not considered normal working hours. NKY Med will open at 5:30 a.m.
The cost of the treatment is about $15 a day. Broce said struggling addicts are often helped by family members to cover those costs.
There is no shortage of possible patients in the Northern Kentucky region and already, Broce said, family members or addicts themselves are knocking on the door on a daily basis.
The clinic is awaiting its second inspection by state officials and following that, federal inspections. NKY Med will have around ten employees ranging from a trained medical staff and a psychiatrist to receptionists. Some staff members may be trained on the clinic's system in New Jersey prior to opening.
The clinic already has a voicemail ready for potential patients and concerned family or friends of potential addicts. It is 1-855-NKY-MEDS (659-6337).
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photos from inside NKY Med Clinic by RCN: