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Wanted: addicts 

For-profit clinic the only game in town

click to enlarge Amber Claborn with her daughter Maya Sunshine and WCHSs Dr. Judith Reynolds. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Amber Claborn with her daughter Maya Sunshine and WCHSs Dr. Judith Reynolds.

All Mike Gardner wants is a few good addicts. Heroin, codeine ... your poison doesn't matter so long as it's a bona fide opiate and you've been on it for about a year.

Gardner, who directs the for-profit Western Clinical Health Services of Colorado (WCHS), is in need of patients. Located on North Parkside Avenue near Memorial Park, WCHS is the only methadone treatment center in Colorado Springs and, save a small center in Pueblo, the only methadone clinic in Southern Colorado.

As Gardner sees it, the problem is not a lack of users but bias in the treatment community against methadone as a legitimate alternative to drugs, as well as the sense that WCHS put the county-run McMaster's Center out of business.

"We should be getting at least one referral a month, and we're not," Gardner said. According to Gardner, approximately 1 percent of the population uses illegal opiates. While WCHS experienced a spike in patients when the McMaster's Center stopped offering methadone treatment last year, the number of patients is hovering just over 200. Gardner says it should be nearly double that.

More like medicine

Methadone is a legal medication that helps transition users of heroin and other opiates to a safe alternative. While a methadone user no longer experiences the highs of a proscribed substance, they're saved from the grueling withdrawal symptoms that come from quitting cold turkey.

"They say that no one has ever died from heroin withdrawal, but they want to," explained Carol Hill, a former WCHS counselor.

The bias against methadone as a legitimate form of treatment, Gardener and others say, stems from the prevalence of the 12-step approach to addiction recovery that doesn't distinguish between methadone and illegal drugs.

"The first part [of the 12-step approach] is that you have to be abstinent; that's where you run into trouble," drug counselor Hill explained. "They say 'methadone is just another drug,' but people on methadone can be responsible and show up for work. It's more like a medicine than a street drug."

Another reason treatment providers claim that methadone gets a bad rap is because clinics often serve as sites for drug dealing or for new users to learn where they can score. Gardner admits this is often the case and said it's the reason WCHS has a strict no-loitering policy, and why his staff often cracks down on patients speaking to each other.

Amber Claborn is one of many local methadone users who moved to WCHS last year when the county closed the McMaster's Center.

A mother of a 1-month-old baby girl, Claborn said the main reason for low patient turnout at WCHS is the increased cost of the drug. "Older people can't afford it," said Claborn who noted that she's now paying off money she owes the clinic that she accrued during her pregnancy.

At McMaster's, which was subsidized by the County Health Department, users paid $100 a month. However, if they attended group therapy sessions and met with a counselor, the cost was reduced to $70.

Since WCHS is a private clinic owned by California-based CRC Health, the cost for users is $190 a month. Patients who qualify can receive a $30 discount from Connect Care, a referral agency that distributes state health funds.

Claborn said that despite the increased cost, methadone is still cheaper than her heroin habit. "It's so much better for your baby, for you, than heroin," she said.

-- John Dicker

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