In a few months, Jamie Gallant will be one of many recovering addicts who will be losing a vital resource. She had been attending Mercy Recovery Center programs for years, but most of them will be closed by the time she returns to Portland after a stint in Florida.

“The first place anyone says when you’re asking for help is Mercy,” Gallant said on Friday. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Mercy won’t be there anymore.”

Mercy Hospital announced this week that its Westbrook recovery center would close by the end of August, affecting roughly 250 patients. About one-third will remain with Mercy addiction specialists in some capacity – some of the in-patient and out-patient treatment programs will be consolidated at its State Street location in Portland – but the remaining two-thirds will be referred to other health care providers.

The decision to close one of the state’s largest treatment centers has left the recovery community scrambling. Mercy will have detoxification services in a more limited capacity at its State Street location, but outpatient services will be dramatically cut back at what has been one of the few treatment options for many uninsured and underinsured addicts in southern Maine.

Marty O’Brien, director of Grace Street Recovery Services, which offers outpatient substance abuse treatment in Lewiston, Portland and Bath, said that unless the gap left by Mercy is filled, people will be seeking treatment at emergency rooms, an inadequate and expensive result.

“The ER is not a place to treat addicts. It could cost $2,000 per visit,” O’Brien said.

Gallant, 24, a former heroin addict, was visiting Portland this week, and she stepped into the Portland Recovery Community Center, a social/civic/support club for recovering addicts. Many of them had used the program operated by Mercy Hospital, a subsidiary of Eastern Maine Healthcare.

“Without Mercy, I would be dead,” said Gallant, who has been clean for five months after spending five years in various treatment programs and relapsing many times.

She is receiving treatment in Florida because she wanted to get away from Portland, but plans to return soon, because Portland is “home.”

Dr. Meredith Norris, a Kennebunk physician who treats opiate addiction patients and works at a Westbrook methadone clinic, said the recovery community had started to rely on Mercy too much in the absence of a statewide strategy to deal with Maine’s growing opiate addiction problem. Most of the Mercy patients were opiate addicts, either heroin or prescription opiates.

“The answer to the question was always, ‘Send them to Mercy.’ I’m hoping the silver lining is that people will step up and create a statewide network to support these programs,” Norris said. “I think we thought that Mercy had this magic wand, when they didn’t.”

While Mercy officials on Friday declined to answer financial questions – about 45 Mercy employees will be laid off as a result of the changes – they said earlier this week that the program had been losing money for years, and that part of the problem was declining reimbursements and people on private health insurance plans who couldn’t afford their high deductibles.

Because Mercy could not refuse treatment to those who couldn’t pay, many became charity, or “free care,” cases, costing the hospital money. In contrast, a privately run treatment center can be more selective with their patients, refusing all or some patients who can’t pay.

The patient population at Mercy may have been self-selecting, experts say. Patients who didn’t have financial means, and were uninsured or underinsured, may have avoided the private clinics and sought out Mercy Recovery, knowing that they would be taken in regardless of their ability to pay.

O’Brien, of Grace Street Recovery Services, fears that patients now will be put on long waiting lists, which could end their treatment.

“If you put them on a waiting list, they’re not going to be at home waiting by the phone, baking bread and taking care of the kids. They’re going to be out using dope,” O’Brien said.

‘A BEACON OF HOPE’

He said Mercy “has been a beacon of hope for thousands of families” and its closure will be felt by clients.

Steve Cotreau, program manager at Portland Recovery Community Center, said they often referred people to Mercy, one of two major programs in the Portland area for people who aren’t upper middle class. Meanwhile, more Mainers are becoming addicted to opiates.

The number of people in the state seeking treatment for opiate abuse has more than doubled in the past decade, to about 4,800 in 2013, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.

“There’s very little we can do,” Cotreau said. “If you don’t have means, you may be out of luck.”

He said his center will expand a program that supports people who are withdrawing from opiates on their own, and are in the early stages of treatment.

“We have volunteers who call people every week, but we’re going to start calling people daily, to offer them encouragement, asking them how they’re doing, giving them advice on how to ease symptoms,” Cotreau said.

Shane Parker of Portland, a former heroin addict who has been clean for two years, says Mercy saved his life.

“Mercy was always there for me,” Parker said. “I’m pretty upset to learn it’s no longer going to be offered. People are going to die.”


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