City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin speaks against the clinic. Steve Kester, who is looking to open the clinic, is seating at left. (Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
A clear separation of support and opposition for the proposed location of a methadone clinic in Johnson City was felt throughout the Jones Meeting Center at the Johnson City Public Library Tuesday evening. Community members and city officials gathered to listen and offer their opinions at a public hearing held by the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency.
Mark Farber, the agency’s deputy director, as well as Jim Christoffersen, general counsel, and Melissa Bobbitt, administrative services, were present to conduct the public hearing that was requested after a certificate of need was filed in March by Steve Kester, co-owner of Tri-Cities Holding LLC, a company trying to locate a methadone clinic at 4 Wesley Court.
Kester, who owns two centers in the Asheville, N.C., and Weaverville, N.C. areas, spoke first at the hearing and said the convenience of the facility in East Tennessee — an area that Kester said previously has around 1,000 people seeking opiate-addiction and prescription drug abuse treatment — would eliminate those seeking treatment from driving to either North Carolina or Knoxville.
“It puts a tremendous burden on them physically, it puts a tremendous burden on their families, on their finances ... their employment and these are people who are trying to get better and trying to break the cycle of addiction,” he said.
Kester said he refers to the clinic as an opiate-treatment program, because the operations and services offered are not solely centered on methadone treatment.
“Our philosophy is we meet the patient where they’re at, so if the physician and the care team, the nurses and the counselors indicate that methadone is best for the patient, then that’s the route we go. Eighty percent of the employees in these programs are counselors because a lot of these people struggle with family issues, they struggle with depression, they struggle with employment issues. They have a number of issues that these counselors work really quite tirelessly with,” he said.
Other services the clinic would offer include testing for tuberculosis and HIV, as well as diversion control techniques that would make sure patients were not selling their medications on the streets.
“This is a very well-established treatment that has acceptance ... around the world,” Kester said. “This type of treatment I think is very badly needed in this area. For every person who makes that 100- to 200-mile round trip (to Knoxville and into North Carolina), there’s two to three people who do not, that can’t afford it, their job won’t allow it, their family situation won’t allow it. People who are going to these centers want to improve themselves.”
Michael Current, an employee of the McCleod Center in North Carolina, spoke at the meeting in support of a clinic in Johnson City.
“I’m here to speak as a voice to opioid treatment and say that I’ve worked in it for nearly seven years and that it is an effective form of treatment,” Current said. “The methadone that we prescribe simply sustains their opiate withdrawal, which allows them to focus on other areas of their life.”
Certified addictions registered nurse Kathy Ostertag also spoke, talking of the success of the clinics — some of which are operated by Kester — and the importance of getting drug abusers and addicts treatment.
“When the patients come into these facilities, they are closely followed by a substance abuse counselor. This is a comprehensive treatment program that provides a whole range of services,” Ostertag said. “We make lots of referrals to physicians, other mental health agencies throughout the community. There’s no need to be afraid of bringing a program like this to your community because your community needs it and the clients that this facility would serve are already here.”
In opposition to the proposed clinic, Ed and Jenna Leach brought with them to the podium their late son’s death certificate, which they showed to those in attendance.
“He died of methadone intoxication seven years ago. He got it from a friend who was going to the Asheville clinic,” Jenna Leach said. “Methadone killed my son. I think Mr. Kester wants to make it easier for the addict.”
Lisa Tipton, executive director of the nonprofit organization Families Free, also spoke in opposition Tuesday night.
“We are actually within a mile of where Mr. Kester is proposing to open up this clinic and there are actually two licensed alcoholic and drugs treatment facilities within a mile of his location who are nonprofit organizations and operate with an alcohol and drug treatment license, which is radically different than what Mr. Kester is proposing,” she said. “I take a lot of offense at what Mr. Kester said because there are people sitting on either side of me in this room who also work with people with addictions each week. We hear the stories, we know what the needs are and we are adamantly opposed to a for profit business coming in to, in my opinion, capitalize on the devastation that’s impacting our region by substance abuse.”
Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and city of Johnson City legal counsel Erick Herrin each briefly took the podium to express their opposition to the proposal and said that city representatives would be present on June 26, when agency board members will meet to either approve or decline the certificate.
Christoffersen said at the beginning of the hearing Tuesday that those in support or opposition should write down their comments and either submit them at the hearing or they can mail them to Nashville before June 26.
Comments in writing should be mailed to the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency, Frost Building, Third Floor, 161 Rosa L. Parks Blvd., Nashville, TN 37243 to the attention of Mark Farber.