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Not a pretty picture

Harbor House withdraws detox plan, leaving hospitals to go it alone much longer


Penrose Hospital's David Ross and Erica Prescott are working to cover a portion of the detox load. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Penrose Hospital's David Ross and Erica Prescott are working to cover a portion of the detox load.

Penrose Hospital is preparing for more detox patients by opening six- and eight-bed overflow areas near its emergency room, says spokesperson Stacey Knott. Meanwhile, at Memorial Hospital, Chris Valentine is dusting off six extra beds in an old neonatal intensive care unit.

"It still has molding around the ceiling with little animals," he notes.

But it'll do. It'll have to. These are the best detox facilities you'll find in El Paso County as of this week, and until June or July, at the earliest.

The Lighthouse Assessment Center, the city's sole "come-down" place for abusers of alcohol and other drugs, stopped providing services last Sunday (see "Drunk tank," cover story, Jan. 22).

The next day, Harbor House Collaborative board vice president Bob Holmes surprised community partners by announcing that his organization had decided unanimously to withdraw its plan to provide a 35- to 40-bed social model detox program this spring or summer.

"As much as we'd like to have done it, this isn't the time to go venturing into uncharted waters," says Holmes, whose Harbor House nonprofit focuses on rehabbing the chronically homeless. "In this economic climate, we're getting notices from donors saying to count on 40 percent less funding. That makes us think about belt-tightening, not expanding."

So, for longer than expected, the city's ERs will have to absorb the substance abusers and the hundreds of dollars, minimum, associated with treating each of them per visit. And in some ways, the Detox Coordinating Council, comprised of local health care, law enforcement and human services representatives, is back to square one, even after two-plus months of exploring options for replacing the Lighthouse.

Michael Allen, clinical director of Connect Care, a behavioral health care management service that administers state funding to local organizations, was one attendee at Monday's meeting.

"My biggest concern," he says, "is I'm required to provide all levels of care, including detox, to this area. The state funds us specifically with [$750,000 annually] that must be used for detox only. If I don't use it, we have to give it back."

Connect Care's contract year runs from July 1 to June 30. Prior to Lighthouse's closure, Allen says, he only reached about half of the 3,300 "encounters" stipulated by the contract. (An encounter is essentially one detox visit which could last multiple days, making the number deceptive when figuring costs.)

"Now, with no detox," he says, "I'm getting no encounters ... with no detox on the horizon this fiscal year."

Which places the detox dilemma as Allen's top priority. He's currently writing an RFP (request for proposal) to seek bids from potential service providers: hospitals, other state detox services interested in opening in El Paso County, private treatment providers interested in expanding, or "really anybody."

Holmes says he believes Harbor House's decision only "sets the process back a month or so." But given the RFP writing time, proper response and consideration time, and final awarding, Allen says it'll be late June or early July, at the earliest, before the city could have a new detox. That guess factors in renovation time, once a suitable site is selected.

Though hospitals are prepared to provide care to everyone needing it, the charitable service doesn't help their budgets. Valentine says Memorial spent $101 million in 2008 on total unreimbursed care.

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