CLINIC CONCERNS: Overmountain Recovery touts success despite lack of patients

Some in community still concerned

GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) - Nearly a year after the Tri-Cities' first methadone clinic opened, officials are calling it a success even though the patient load is well below original estimates.

Overmountain Recovery is a joint venture between East Tennessee State University and Ballad Health. The clinic opened in Gray in September 2017.

Thousands of people protested the clinic's opening because they were concerned about a possible increase in crime and traffic in the area.

"We were very apprehensive last year," Margie Hale recalled. She lives across the street from the clinic but admits a year after opening, Overmountain has not been as bad a neighbor as she originally thought.

"I haven't really noticed a lot of change. It's been pretty quiet," Hale said. "As far as people driving erratic or staggering along the roads or anything like that I don't see any of that."

Overmountain Recovery Program Director Laurie Street said the clinic is currently treating 164 patients. But clinic officials estimated they would be treating 650 patients by the end of the clinic's first year as outlined in the clinic's application to the state where they justified the need for the first methadone clinic in the Tri-Cities.

"I think when they made those original targets we didn't know," said Street. "We knew what the need is and the need is still great out there. I think the more our program is out there and people see what we're doing here and education on medication assisted treatment gets out there and we expand our services I have no doubt that we'll reach those numbers probably pretty soon."

Street said she believes the clinic is a success. "We've had many patients get a job since coming here. We've had them tell us about being promoted in different jobs so I think that's such a success to see that."

Street also said the clinic is retaining patients. "We are currently at about 76 percent which is really high. it's much higher than the national benchmark."

News Channel 11 asked how many people were actively weaning themselves off methadone at the clinic. Street said several, but when News Channel 11 followed up to get a specific number, Ballad Health spokesperson Meaghan Smith said they "cannot discuss specifics of our patients' treatment plans."

The spokesperson also did not tell us how many patients have relapsed, but Street admitted it has happened. "We have had a few that have successfully weaned themselves off then come back to us," she said.

News Channel 11 searched through Johnson City police reports from the last year and talked to the Washington County Sheriff about crime in and around the clinic. We only found one police report from Johnson City Police that raised an issue. In 2017 Street was cited for false alarms at the clinic. The incident report said officers had responded to the clinic four previous times for false alarms.

The non-profit group "Citizens to Maintain Gray" has been against the clinic's location from the beginning. Danny Sells is the spokesperson for the organization. While he thinks extra police patrols in the are are helping a lot, he still believes the clinic is disrupting the community. 

"We've had a significant increase in pan-handling. We've had people that have been trying to sell stuff, flat out begging," Sells said. News Channel 11 checked Johnson City police reports over the last year and talked to the Washington County sheriff but could not find any reports to back up those claims.

Sells believes the clinic is still a blight on the community and is not a good neighbor.

"It's the responsibility of those folks running that clinic that our community, more than two thousand said we do not want it here," Sells said. "It is their responsibility to relay to the community that these are the things that we are doing and this is what we're trying to do to be a good neighbor."

Overmountain maintains they have been in the community educating people about the clinic and continue to do so through its community advisory committee. Street said clinic officials even discussed expanding treatment options to include Suboxone with the committee before doing so in mid-August. Street said there are more plans to expand treatment in the future. "Our plan is to expand our program to abstinence based programs we're also going to start our research in conjunction with ETSU."

The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services cited two critical administrative violations in Overmountain Recovery's annual inspection report in May 2018. One of the violations involved Ballad Health suing a private investigation company that was not licensed by the state to do criminal background checks on employees. A private investigator license is required by law for work conducted for mental health facilities. Smith said when they were notified that the company needed a license the company applied and received one. 

Smith also said the clinic is not currently making a profit and did not provide a timeline for when it will break even. The statement read, in part: 

"The clinic's main priority is reducing the burden of addiction in our region, so any profits that may be earned through operations in the future will be reinvested into research, education and prevention activities to complement the other significant investments Ballad Health is making in addiction recovery and prevention services throughout the region."

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