Massena mayor wants hospital to add drug treatment facilities
Sunday, February 14, 2016 - 8:53 am

By ANDY GARDNER

MASSENA -- The village mayor, who also is head of the Massena Drug Free Community Coalition, wants Massena Memorial Hospital to add detox and substance abuse treatment beds.

But MMH says it’s not something they would be equipped to do anytime soon, and the state healthcare system would likely prevent them from doing so.

“Massena Memorial Hospital is a quality healthcare facility and forming partnerships is currently being explored,” Mayor Tim Currier said. “It is my hope that as the hospital moves forward, the topic of substance abuse treatment is part of those discussions and a serious consideration in any final collaborative relationship decision.”

Right now, MMH is in the early stages of converting from a municipal entity to a private, non-profit hospital. MMH CEO Robert Wolleben says their municipal status precludes affiliating or merging with larger hospitals that could offer the service.

Currier pointed to the detox program at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, which he says is looking to expand and could be a good fit for MMH.

“A key part of this strategy includes forming partnerships with other healthcare facilities with a proven record of success,” Currier said. “For example, Crouse Hospital in Syracuse has been offering a successful substance abuse program since 1962 and they are looking to expand their services.”

Even after MMH privatizes, the state could deny them. The Office of Mental Health oversees chemical dependency, and bases its approval for new services on the number of beds in the area compared to the population.

“They have a bed need methodology,” Wolleben said.

He says MMH doesn’t have the expertise to treat chemical dependency, which is offered at Rose Hill in Massena and Canton-Potsdam Hospital in Potsdam.

“We think they’re better positioned to meet the need,” he said. “It’s on our list, but not at the top.”

Another huge obstacle is cash, Wolleben said.

Setting up rehab services is expensive and takes a lot of time before they can recover the investment. MMH has been cash-strapped for years, and is now just starting to turn a profit, albeit razor-thin.

The hospital was losing upwards of $250,000 per month, and some months closer to $500,000, through the spring of 2015. That was when they hit a turning point and started to end months in the black, regularly doing so by the end of the year and turning an $800,000 profit compared to an overall $200,000 loss for 2014.

“It takes a significant investment, space, people, knowledge, resources … it takes years to recuperate the investment,” Wolleben said.

He also pointed to Medicaid reimbursements, which are low to begin with and even lower for drug treatment.

“Many communities across the country have the problem and unfortunately the reimbursement systems haven’t caught up to it,” according to Wolleben.

The area is faced with what Currier describes as “a significant gap in access to [drug] treatment.”

At the Drug-Free Coalition’s “Let’s Take Back Our Community” meeting in September, several locals voiced frustrations at the inability to get their addict loved ones into detox when they needed it. There are fewer than 20 detox beds in St. Lawrence County, all of which are at Canton-Potsdam Hospital. They often refuse opiate addicts because the withdrawal isn’t potentially lethal, like with alcohol.

“Members of the MDFCC have heard those sentiments over and over the last several years from people in recovery, family members of those dealing with addiction and professionals in the prevention and treatment fields … that there is a lack of access to treatment in the North Country,” Currier said. “We all know that a comprehensive approach to the opiate problem we have in our communities is required to effectively deal with it. It must include strong and effective prevention strategies, appropriate enforcement, and successful recovery services.”