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Alaska detox clinics say they'll start admitting new opiate patients by end of May after shutdown

After a shutdown that ignited a public outcry, Alaska's only available opiate detox beds could be open for new patients again as early as the end of this week.

Both the Ernie Turner Center and the Gateway to Recovery Center in Fairbanks temporarily stopped admitting new patients for opiate detox last week after each discovered its procedures violated federal regulations.

Anchorage's Ernie Turner Center could be admitting new opiate detox patients as soon as Friday, said Rebecca Ling, the head of recovery services for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, which oversees the center.

Turner has 14 beds in Anchorage for medically supervised detox. Right now, there's a waitlist of about 50 people. For nearly half of them, opiate use is the primary issue.

The Gateway to Recovery Center in Fairbanks, which has two beds designated for opiate detox, should begin admitting new patients by the end of May, said director Perry Ahsogeak.

Both centers kept treating current patients as well as detoxing people from other substances, such as alcohol.

The news was met with outcry in a state where officials and the public agree that heroin and prescription painkiller abuse has reached epidemic proportions.

The problem that forced the shutdown centered on a drug called Tramadol, a medication used to ease opiate detox that is itself an opioid.

The Drug Enforcement Administration made Tramadol a Schedule IV controlled substance in 2014, Ling said. One of the results of the new classification: Only DEA-certified medical providers can administer Tramadol for detox purposes.

The physician assistants overseeing detox at each of the programs did not have the DEA certification, she said.

But no one at either clinic noticed they were in violation of the change until last week.

"We weren't aware of this regulation or we just wouldn't have been providing the service," Ling said.

Tramadol is a useful drug with "good outcomes" for detox patients, Ling said.

"It's an easier detox. It keeps (patients) more comfortable," she said. But there are other options, Ling said. Staff members are meeting this week to come up with a plan that will allow for opiate detox that doesn't violate current federal regulations.

So how did a change in federal regulation take so long to come to light?

With a constant churn of new regulations to keep track of, it's not totally surprising that the Tramadol issue wasn't immediately recognized, Ahsogeak said.

"There are changes all the time," he said. "And everything goes through a review process. We found the issue and we're trying to address the issue."

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