An opioid addiction treatment program will move into recently vacated space at the city-run India Street Public Health Center in downtown Portland.

Grace Street Recovery Services will occupy space once used by the city’s clinic for HIV-positive patients, which closed in December.

Grace Street offers medication-assisted treatment, using Suboxone and Vivitrol, along with intensive counseling at clinics on Auburn Street in Portland, in Lewiston and in Sanford. It also plans to offer methadone treatment at its Sanford clinic.

Grace Street will move its Auburn Street facility to India Street, which it says will allow it to help a larger number of addicts in the Portland area.

The organization treats 40 to 45 people at its Auburn Street location, and it’s not clear how many more could be treated at the new location.

Maine’s drug overdose deaths climbed for a fifth straight year in 2016 to a record 378 people, an increase of about 40 percent over the 272 in 2015.

The epidemic of addiction to heroin and synthetic opioids has pushed demand for treatment beyond the capacity of treatment programs.

Those seeking treatment but unable to access it in Maine number about 25,000 to 30,000, according to estimates provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the federal substance abuse treatment agency.

“The addition of Grace Street at India Street will greatly add to our ability to address this public health crisis in our community,” City Manager Jon Jennings said in a written statement.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the district and leads the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, also applauded the announcement Wednesday.

“It would be great to have a partner to address similar issues,” Ray said. “I think it could ramp up services at India Street.”

The facility at 103 India St. is still used for sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, a needle exchange program for drug users, and the independently run nonprofit Portland Community Free Clinic, which provides free health care to the uninsured.

The needle exchange and STD clinic serve roughly 2,000 people a year.

Jennings said Grace Street “will work side by side with our staff at the needle exchange and STD clinic, as well as the volunteers at the free clinic. Through my (fiscal year 2018) budget recommendation to the City Council, I will ask for council support to fund the needle exchange and STD clinic as we did last year.”

Grace Street is a for-profit addiction treatment group that partners with the Choopers Foundation, a nonprofit that supports recovery services.

Tim Cheney, chief operating officer for Grace Street and president of the foundation, said Grace Street opened seven years ago in Lewiston and now serves nearly 800 people statewide.

BETTER ACCESS TO TREATMENT

Cheney said in an interview that the new location alongside the needle exchange program will provide people who want treatment better access to it. “This is right in inner-city Portland,” he said.

He expects the new facility will be able to treat more people in Portland than it does now, but he couldn’t give an exact number. He expects the India Street location to be open the first week of May.

Grace Street offers staged programming, Cheney said. The first stage involves patients visiting the clinic five days a week for three-hour sessions that include group and private counseling.

That takes place for six weeks, before patients are placed in after-care, which typically involves group sessions that are tailored to the patient’s personal needs.

After that, patients are connected to community-based programs to remain drug-free.

Cheney said patients can be involved in the program for two months to two years. Grace Street accepts self-paying customers at $65 week, he said, as well as people covered by MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

The service is also covered by some private insurance companies. And grants are available to some people who could not otherwise afford treatment, he said.

Some existing tenants at India Street said they have concerns. Leslie Nicoll, vice president of the Friends of the Portland Community Free Clinic, said she worries that the clinic might lose access to its five exam rooms, which it uses about 20 hours a week in the evening.

Nicoll said she was originally told one room would be dedicated to Grace Street, which would also have priority booking for the four remaining exam rooms from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., five days a week.

Both Cheney and the city said that’s not the case. The rooms would be booked through a shared schedule, they said.

“The contract identifies the exam rooms as shared space,” said City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin. “It says nothing about priority to Grace Street.”

CONCERN FOR FUTURE OF FREE CLINIC

The free clinic nearly closed in 2011 after Mercy Hospital pulled its $210,000 in annual funding, citing shifting priorities and its belief that the city had other resources to serve those patients. But the clinic remained open after it formed a friends group, received nonprofit status and began raising funds.

While poor people can get health care elsewhere in Portland, the free clinic targets people who earn too much to qualify for MaineCare but can’t afford health insurance or visits to the doctor.

Care is provided by doctors and nurses who volunteer their time after they get off from work, and the city does not charge the group for its space at India Street.

Nicoll said she is concerned about the long-term stability of the free clinic.

“We haven’t even recovered from what we went through last time, and here we are with another unnecessary disruption,” she said.

Cheney said the free clinic and other programs at India Street should not see any negative impacts.

“Once we start working together, it’s all going to flow because we have the same mission,” he said. “If people want it to work, it will work.”

Last year, the city closed the HIV program at India Street. It was funded by a two-year federal grant totaling a little more than $700,000 that paid for the space and much of the India Street staff.

The grant for the HIV-positive program was transferred to Greater Portland Health, a federally qualified nonprofit health center.

NEEDLE EXCHANGE PROGRAM OFFER

The city continued to lease 5,000 square feet of space at 103 India St. for nearly $60,000 a year, so it could continue the needle exchange and STD clinic while ensuring the free clinic would remain open.

Grace Street will pay $35,000 a year for 1,642 square feet of space, as well as nearly 2,600 square feet of shared space with the other clinics. Cheney said he has made a “longterm offer” to the city to take over its needle exchange program, as well as testing services for Hepatitis C and HIV.

Correction: This article was updated at 9:41 a.m. on Thursday, March 16, 2017 to correct the number of people treated at the Auburn Street location and the spelling of the vice president of the Friends of the Portland Community Free Clinic’s name.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: @randybillings