Wednesday July 25, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- This isn't the first time Spectrum Health Systems, the company planning to open a methadone clinic in Pittsfield, has faced fierce, homegrown opposition.

Around the state, Spectrum's plans to open treatment centers for heroin and prescription pain-killer addicts have been greeted with protest, petitions and in some cases, lawsuits.

Like in Pittsfield, concerned residents worried the clinics would attract blight and crime. And like in Pittsfield, residents initially attempted to block the company from coming into town.

"It's not uncommon that when we decide to go into a community and establish a service that there isn't some level of concern in that community," said Spectrum CEO Charles Faris, addressing a public forum on Monday night.

It's also not uncommon for Spectrum to fight back and win in the face of opposition.

It overcame Southbridge's attempts in 2009 to impose special permitting requirements, according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. And before that, Spectrum prevailed in a six-year, $45,000 legal battle with Framingham after the town realized its prospects of victory were slim, according to The Milford Daily news.

But Spectrum also has a history of winning over opponents once its clinics are set up.

"It's quiet, we're having no problems," Sandy Norton, a business owner near a Spectrum clinic, told The Milford Daily News a year after the opening in Framingham. "We were very upset about them even coming in but it's like they are not even there.


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Likewise, police chiefs in towns where Spectrum and other methadone clinics operate say residents' initial fears ultimately proved unfounded.

"Overall, [Spectrum] has done a very good job and many of our longtime residents are not even aware that they exist," said Southbridge Police Chief Daniel Charette in response to a query from the Pittsfield Police Department.

Spectrum, a nonprofit company based in Worcester, currently operates five methadone clinics in the state. Methadone is an opioid medication used to treat pain and addictions to heroin, Oxycontin and other painkillers.

The company sued the city last year after then-mayor James M. Ruberto's administration attempted to block Spectrum's plans to open in the Berkshire Nautilus building on Summer Street. A second proposed location on Stoddard Avenue was scuttled last month when the landlord withdrew interest, which followed protest by residents.

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi says the city is in the process of settling the suit his administration inherited from Ruberto. He said he is taking into account the experience of other towns who put up costly fights against Spectrum and eventually lost.

"[That experience] is framing my approach to settle this in a manner that minimizes exposure to our taxpayers," Bianchi said. "You know the old saying: If you don't learn by history, you're bound to repeat it."

Bianchi said that the more he's learned about heroin and opioid addiction in the county, the more he's come to realize the city would benefit from a clinic.

Opponents have said they recognize a need for a clinic here, but they don't believe one should be allowed to open in a downtown or residential area.

Bianchi, pointing to other localities' attempts to prevent similar clinics from opening, has repeatedly stressed that the city has no say in where a clinic eventually goes.

State and federal statutes allow certain medical companies to bypass local zoning regulations if an urgent need -- such as in an area with a high number of fatal or non-fatal heroin overdoses -- can be demonstrated. State Depart ment of Public Health statistics suggest that's the case in Pittsfield.

Dr. Jennifer Michaels, the medical director at the Brien Center, says she thinks concerns surrounding the Spec trum are driven by stereotypes that are incorrect.

"I think if we're honest with ourselves, we conjure up an image of an addict that's dirty, homeless and threatening," she said on Monday night. "That's a very bleak picture, and it's not the reality."

She said the recovering addicts she works with daily range come from all walks of life and professions, from students and waitresses, to doctors and therapists.

"The people who have opioid addictions are not ‘those people' -- they're us," she said. "Addiction is an equal opportunity disease."

To reach Ned Oliver:
noliver@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @BE_NedOliver


Police experience at other clinics

In response to a statewide query made by the Pittsfield Police Department, police chiefs from two Massachusetts towns where Spectrum Health Systems currently operates a methadone clinic responded to share their experiences.

  • Southbridge: "We have had a methadone treatment center on Main Street for about three years. I worked very closely with the operators to ensure that there is no loitering and their scheduling is very precise. Overall they have done a very good job and many of our longtime residents are not even aware that they exist." -- Police Chief Daniel Charette
  • Milford: "We have not experienced any adverse issues. In fact, we experience only a couple of calls, if that, in a year and they are generally calls from staff seeking assistance in having someone leave the premises. ... Although we have dealt with clients that go to the facility, we have not experienced any increase in criminal activity in this area." -- Police Chief Tom O'Loughlin