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Suffolk methadone treatment wait list keeps growing

Linda Ventura of Kings Park lost her 21-year-old

Linda Ventura of Kings Park lost her 21-year-old son, Thomas Ventura, to a drug overdose in March 2012. She has since started an advocacy group, Thomas' Hope, in his honor. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The waitlist for Suffolk County’s four methadone clinics has grown to more than 200 people, propelled by increasing abuse of heroin and other opiates, officials said.

Thomas Schmidt, clinic administrator for Suffolk’s Methadone Maintenance Treatment Program, said, “I wouldn’t tell anyone that they could get into treatment within a couple of days or even a couple of weeks if they called us.” Pregnant women and HIV patients do not have to wait, Schmidt said.

The Suffolk County health department said the waitlist first became necessary late last year.

Experts warn that delays in getting into treatment hamper the chances of recovery for addicts, and could contribute to overdoses.

“How long that window stays open for an addict to be willing to seek treatment could be a matter of hours, days — certainly not a matter of months,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of Family and Children’s Association, a Mineola nonprofit that offers drug recovery programs.

“It seems crazy that we wouldn’t find a way to get them help sooner,” Reynolds said.

Nassau County health officials say they have experienced an increase in demand for treatment, and that the county methadone clinic in East Meadow treats about 540 people.

Nassau officials say they have not had to turn to a waitlist in part because they also administer two other forms of anti-addiction medications, Suboxone and Vivitrol. The latter is given by injection and requires only monthly visits to county clinics. Nassau’s proximity to New York City also means some addicts are likely to seek treatment there, according to some local addiction specialists.

Suffolk has started a Vivitrol pilot program for addicts at the county jail in Riverhead, Schmidt said.

Treatment of last resort

Methadone, a highly regulated narcotic, has been used for decades to wean addicts off opioids. The drug, usually taken daily, reduces withdrawal symptoms without causing the high associated with heroin and prescription painkillers. It typically is the treatment of last resort for users who have failed repeatedly at other types of withdrawal programs, according to experts.

The four Suffolk County methadone clinics in Huntington, Riverhead and Hauppauge are at capacity with a total of about 1,100 clients, county health officials said. New treatment slots become available as people leave the program.

But the long-term nature of methadone treatment, which can take months or years depending on the client, means new openings are limited to a handful each month.

Last month, Suffolk hired two clinic workers in hopes of whittling down the list, and plans to hire at least two more in the coming months, Schmidt said.

Social service advocates expressed concern that those measures may fall short given the need.

Last year, there were 103 fatal heroin overdoses in Suffolk, according to preliminary county data. The figure is expected to rise, as the county also had another 126 possible fatal drug overdoses for which the cause of death has not been determined. In 2014, there were a record 109 heroin overdose deaths in Suffolk.

Nassau had 58 fatal heroin overdoses last year, compared with 53 in 2014, according to county data.

Anthony Rizzuto, a program coordinator at Seafield Center, a private Westhampton Beach addiction treatment center, said the county’s waitlist highlights the challenges addicts face getting into treatment programs. Inpatient detoxification programs in both counties often turn away patients for lack of beds, Rizzuto said.

Last month, the state Office of Alcoholism & Substance Abuse Services launched an “availability dashboard” on its website that allows people to find bed openings throughout the state in real time.

Suffolk previously used a telephone lottery system to admit new clients into the methadone program. People were instructed to call on Mondays for the chance to arrange intake appointments to determine if they were eligible.

‘Too many people calling’

Schmidt said the old system frustrated addicts, with many calling week after week without success, with no way of estimating how long it would take to secure a spot.

“We were seeing that the numbers were getting harder to manage,” Schmidt said. “It just got to the point that too many people were calling and everyone started to feel the strain of it.”

The waitlist seeks to address some of those frustrations, by allowing people to track their place in line, so they can seek other types of treatment until they are notified a slot has become available, Schmidt said. Addicts who want county methadone treatment must prove they have failed at other types of drug withdrawal programs.

Officials in Suffolk and Nassau say they hope to address the need for more detoxification programs by partnering with three nonprofit mental health clinics that received state approval last year to offer medically supervised outpatient programs.

In Suffolk, the program is run jointly by Central Nassau Guidance and Horizons Counseling in Hauppauge. In Nassau, the program is offered by Counseling Service of EDNY in Hempstead, and in Hicksville by Central Nassau Guidance.

“We can get people in, they can come into the program, detox under medical supervision . . . and during that time, they’re engaging in treatment,” said Jeffrey Stein, executive director of Central Nassau Guidance “There are no gaps.”

Linda Ventura of Kings Park, who founded Thomas’ Hope, a foundation that promotes drug awareness and prevention, called on Suffolk and state officials to increase funding for opioid withdrawal programs. Ventura, whose son Thomas died of an overdose in 2012 at age 21, has traveled to Albany with other parent activists to draw attention to the obstacles facing addicts who want to get into treatment.

Although Thomas Ventura never attempted to receive methadone treatment, he attended several other types of rehabilitation programs, and often had to wait for beds to become available, or for approval from his health insurance provider.

“No one should be waiting,” Ventura said.

Long Island Heroin Overdoses:

  • In 2015, there were 103 fatal heroin overdoses in Suffolk.
  • In 2014, there were a record 109 heroin overdose deaths in Suffolk.
  • In 2015, there were 58 fatal heroin overdoses in Nassau.
  • In 2014, there were 53 in 2014.

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