Nearly two years after opening its doors, Northeast Tennessee’s only methadone clinic is treating fewer patients than expected but is making progress.
In September 2017, Overmountain Recovery in Gray became Tennessee’s 13th methadone clinic.
The opening didn’t come without controversy. Dozens of community members turned out in protest, fearing that the facility would increase crime and traffic in the area.
Behavioral health leaders at East Tennessee State University and Ballad Health argued in their application to the state that the need for this type of treatment program was impossible to ignore.
“People that are not engaged in treatment are about five times more likely to die from an overdose than someone that is engaged in treatment and so there’s a significant benefit,” said Rob Pack, associate dean at ETSU’s College of Public Health.
Overmountain Recovery provides both medication-assisted treatment and a variety of therapy services in-house.
“Our goal is to help them stay alive while they’re also gaining skills in therapy,” Pack said.
Program leaders told News Channel 11 no patients, to their knowledge, have overdosed since the program started.
Before the clinic opened, Pack said access to medication-assisted treatment was virtually non-existent in Northeast Tennessee.
He said the closest clinic in the state was about an hour and a half away in Knox County and many patients opted to travel to Asheville, North Carolina instead.
Today, Overmountain Recovery is treating 273 patients, according to Program Director Laurie Street. That’s up from 164 patients last year but still falls short of the 650 they expected to see, as outlined in their application to the state.
“That was a number that was based on the best available data in terms of overall need in the region at the time,” said Trish Baise, Ballad Health’s vice president of behavioral health services. “So I think those projections were off a bit but it isn’t necessarily an indictment of the work that’s been done here or the access that’s being provided.”
But barriers to access remain.
Pack said TennCare and some private insurance plans still don’t cover methadone treatment.
Out of pocket, Overmountain Recovery’s services cost $16 daily or more than $5 thousand annually.
There is good news, according to Street.
The clinic was the first in Tennessee to be awarded a “State Opioid Response” grant for $1.6 million.
Street said that allows them to provide care at just under $3 a day to 360 people.
“That has allowed us to help a lot of people who otherwise may not be able to seek treatment,” she said.
Program leaders are also trying to make it easier for patients to get to the clinic, located about 20 minutes from the nearest city center, by offering gas cards.
“Transportation is a huge problem for a lot of patients so we’re working on some contracts, maybe with the Uber Health, to be able to help,” Street said.
Leaders also suspect the stigma surrounding opioid use disorder is keeping some patients from seeking treatment.
“Those folks are as ill as anybody else who enters a hospital,” said Randy Jessee, Ballad Health’s behavioral health senior director. “I would encourage everybody to educate themselves more deeply on what addiction is, what does it mean to be that person.”
Pack said the methadone administered in the Gray facility is different than the form distributed from pain clinics, which is often abused.
That’s because it’s in liquid form and doses are closely monitored, Pack said.
Jessee said patients are required to take doses under observation in-house for several weeks before they’re allowed to take any medication home.
“We do have to account for every dose that’s given at this facility,” said Jessee.
Street said that privilege can be revoked if it’s abused but she said, so far, most patients have followed the rules.
Program leaders anticipate more patients will take part in methadone treatment as Overmountain Recovery continue to address negative assumptions and systematic barriers.
“When we create barriers that prevent them from seeking help, we’re really robbing them of hope,” said Baise.