Townshend to discuss addiction clinic tonight at Town Hall

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BRATTLEBORO -- Tonight at 7 p.m. in the dining room of the Townshend Town Hall, concerned residents of the town will get a chance to find out more about a proposed drug treatment clinic that will be located at 26 Grafton Road.

If all goes as planned, Dr. Mario Hasaj could be prescribing Suboxone to up to 100 patients sometime next year.

Rumors of the clinic have been circulating around town for at least three months, said Hasaj, which prompted the chairwoman of the Selectboard to invite him to tonight's meeting to explain what he plans to do at the clinic and to help allay the concerns of residents who live nearby.

"People are really worried," admitted Hasaj. "My main concern is to listen to the people, to their questions, concerns and their worries and what thoughts they have about Suboxone and try to answer all their questions."

Selectboard Chairwoman Hedy Harris said she has received a number of calls from people concerned about the prospect of a drug treatment clinic in Townshend.

"They are concerned he will be essentially attracting addicts to the neighborhood," she said.

Suboxone is used to treat opiate addiction, which include heroin, morphine, Oxycodone and OxyContin.

Harris said Hasaj appears to be a very pleasant, professional and dedicated doctor.

"I asked him a number of questions and he seems to be quite open," said Harris, who asked him to speak at the meeting tonight. "It's a pretty complete program. They won't just be handing out pills."

She said the more people know about his plans, the better.

"He had been thinking about having an open house but I thought it wasn't soon enough," said Harris. "People are changing their locks now."

"People here are very afraid we are going to fill the streets with addicts who are going to break into their homes," admitted Hasaj. "But the point of Suboxone treatment is to keep addicts off the street."

Prescription drugs are by far the most abused drugs in New England, said Hasaj, and many people get addicted to opiates as a result of pain management.

Those addicted to opiates can spend hundreds of dollars a week to keep their habits satisfied, said Hasaj, while a Suboxone pill costs about $10 and only one or two a day are needed.

In addition, he said his clinic will not be just a "Suboxone Clinic," where patients will walk in, get their prescriptions and leave.

Those addicted to opiates often have mental health problems, he said, so he will also offer therapy for mood and psychiatric disorders and post traumatic stress disorder.

Hasaj is a graduate of the University of Buenos Aires Medical School in Argentina. He completed his residency at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, and a fellowship in geriatric psychiatry at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. He is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. His specialty is adult psychiatry.

Prior to joining the Retreat five years ago, Hasaj worked at the Jersey City Medical Center and Catholic Community Services in outpatient and partial hospital programs. He has also worked in the psychiatric emergency department at Jersey City Medical Center and provided psychiatric consultation services for Palisades Medical Center. His private practice in New Jersey focused primarily on providing psychiatric consultations to residents of nursing homes.

Hasaj said he has worked with opiate addicts for two years at the Retreat and he knows what to expect.

"I don't think anyone enjoys being an opium addict," he said. "It's a living nightmare. It destroys people, their families and takes everything away from them."

Those who wish to use the clinic will have to undergo a rigorous screening process, which will include a criminal background check, said Hasaj, to determine that they are serious about kicking their habits.

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"If ‘Joey' doesn't like it, there are 10 other patients behind him who are truly motivated and not coming to waste their time or our time," he said.

Patients will have rules they will need to abide by if they want to be treated at the clinic, said Hasaj, and will have to sign a contract.

"If I hear of any complaints they will be addressed immediately," he said. "I am not going to tolerate any inappropriate behaviors. We don't want to be in a confrontational situation with the community because I live here."

Many people who are concerned over his plans to open the clinic may not know that there is already a doctor at Grace Cottage who prescribes Suboxone.

Dr. Timothy Shafer, a family practitioner, has been offering Suboxone for about six years. Shafer said he prefers to take referrals from local doctors, including those in primary care, private practice and those at the Retreat but some of his patients come from as far away as northern Vermont and New York State.

"There is such an intense need for prescribers of Suboxone," said Shafer. "If you let a whisper get out you get calls from 200 miles away. There is definitely a need. It's an epidemic."

He currently has about 40 patients, from their 20s into their 60s, to whom he prescribes Suboxone. Some have chronic pain, such as fibermyalgia or back problems for which they received narcotics and now they hope they can quit with the help of Suboxone.

Suboxone is a synthetic narcotic that is designed to bind with the same receptors that opiates bind to, said Shafer, and is a mild stimulant.

"It gives a good feeling like you took a brisk walk on a cold morning," he said.

One of the big benefits of Suboxone, said Shafer, is that once the receptors are bound by the drug, taking more does nothing and ingesting a narcotic has no effect.

"It hogs the receptors," he said. "You can't abuse this stuff."

Unfortunately, Suboxone does create a dependency and withdrawal symptoms might result for some if the prescription is not maintained, though it's not as violent as going cold turkey from heroin.

Some people are able to taper off from Suboxone while others must continue its use.

Shafer said he is confident that Hasaj will run his clinic "by the letter, adding Hasaj is a wonderful and dedicated man who loves his work.

"He's a real workaholic," said Shafer. "He came in here and made himself available day and night."

Hasaj has received state approval to open his clinic, one of the few that will offer Suboxone in Vermont. When his clinic opens, he hopes in the spring, he will be sharing the duties with Bonnie Chase.

Hasaj said he would not be surprised if there are 100 or more patients in need of Suboxone treatment in Windham County.

"I don't know if I really want to have that many," he said. "This is very hard time-consuming work."

When Hasaj moved to Vermont, he lived in Jamaica, Brattleboro and now in Townshend.

"I love it here," said Hasaj. "I love the culture, the people and the doctors who really put their heart and soul into their work."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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