The medication, buprenorphine, helps heroin users beat their habits, but it is particularly useful for abusers of Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet and similar prescription opioid pain pills.
Tacoma Treatment Solutions, the new clinic, will have buprenorphine and methadone available when it starts accepting patients in coming weeks.
The center is one of several Puget Sound-area opioid treatment facilities recently opened by CRC Health Group, the nation’s largest, for-profit drug treatment company. The California-based company is responding to an unmet need for such services in the region.
Though heroin use has held relatively steady locally, pain-pill abuse is growing.
The director of the new Lakewood clinic and also of CRC’s Federal Way center, Joan Bunnell, has noticed what she calls a “huge influx” in prescription drug abuse.
Some 186 people turned to public treatment centers in the county for help with pill addictions in fiscal year 2004, which ended in June,up from 138 in 2000. Similar climbs have been noted statewide.
But health officials say they do not have enough money to help everyone, estimating that only about 21 percent of those who qualify for state-funded treatment get it. Waiting lists stretch weeks.
That leaves a large market opportunity for companies such as CRC, which plans to open a fifth opiate treatment clinic in Vancouver, Wash., by year’s end.
The expansion is helped by a recent change in state law – prompted by the need for more treatment centers – that makes it nearly impossible for counties to keep clinics out, though they retain a say in where they go.
Unlike at county’s two Tacoma methadone clinics, CRC clients will have to turn to insurance or pay out-of-pocket cover costs. The clinic does not accept Medicaid, though it hopes to do so eventually.
Methadone treatment costs $10 a day, and a year of burprenorphine therapy will cost about $4,000. Fees cover drug costs and a host of support services, including on-line counseling, according to CRC founder and CEO Barry Karlin.
Members of the drug treatment community said they are glad to see a new clinic in Tacoma all the same. CRC’s center can treat up to 350 people at a time, a significant addition to the 700 opioid treatment slots available through the county.
They suspect at least some pain-pill abusers will be able to afford CRC’s charges, because they have not fallen on the hard times of heroin abusers.
Providers also welcome expanded access to buprenorphine, which is not usually available through the county, and has proven particularly effective for the less severe addictions common to pain pill abuse.
“Buprenorphine is an issue of where you are in the disease process,” Karlin said.
Like methadone, it is a replacement drug taken by mouth and meant to be tapered slowly. But buprenorphine is harder to overdose and is mixed with another drug so there is no high if injected, making abuse harder.
The extra safety means the government allows doctors – once they are trained – to prescribe buprenorphine so patients do not have to stand in line at a clinic, as with methadone. Only two Pierce County doctors are authorized to do so, and they are capped at 30 patients each.
However, buprenorphine is far more expensive than methadone, dollars a day instead of pennies, which is one of the main reasons cash-strapped public clinics do not use of it much.
How pain pills enter the abuse community is not entirely clear, said Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientists at University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Street dealing, forged prescriptions, diversions for legitimate use, even the Internet all play a role.
M. Alexander Otto: 253-597-8616
Information about Tacoma Treatment Solutions is available at www.crchealth.com.