WASILLA -- A new methadone clinic is opening here this spring, nearly a year after the city's only clinic closed despite deepening concern about the Valley's lack of drug treatment options.
Along with the new clinic, run by an Arizona-based company called Community Medical Services, Wasilla is also getting a new counseling center with a substance-abuse component expected to open this week.
Wasilla's planning commission approved permits for the methadone program and the other facility, operated by Anchorage-based Wisdom Traditions Counseling Services LLC, at a largely favorable public hearing in January.
The addition of two outpatient drug treatment options -- especially a methadone clinic -- represents a significant addition to the scant options for drug treatment in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
"My phone has not stopped ringing," said Echo Wyche, Wisdom Tradition's program coordinator in Wasilla. Wyche, a substance abuse counselor with a nursing background, said she's gotten too many calls to count from people seeking help.
"The demand is definitely here," she said.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a growing municipality the size of West Virginia, has been hit hard by heroin addiction recently, as has the rest of the state. But it gets less state grant funding per capita for substance abuse than the state's other sizable metropolitan areas (Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Kenai), according to the Mat-Su Health Foundation. Over the past decade, state funding has stayed relatively flat while the borough's population has roughly doubled, according to foundation executive director Elizabeth Ripley.
"We're way underfunded," Ripley said. The state also has no plan in place to deliver mental health and substance-abuse services to different regions, she said.
Statewide, treatment admissions for opioids as the primary substance of abuse have increased nearly 60 percent from about 75 per 100,000 residents in 2009 to about 119 per 100,000 in 2014, according to the Treatment and Recovery Section of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
State officials couldn't provide specific breakdowns for opioid treatment in Mat-Su. There were 14 heroin-associated deaths in the borough from 2008 to 2015, according to the Mat-Su Health Foundation.
Heroin here manifests itself in the stories of desperate parents shocked by the lack of local treatment options, in the homeless young people drifting in and out of the woods, in a spike in property crimes like brazen daylight mailbox thefts and home break-ins.
But there are fewer than 10 drug treatment options in the entire borough, all but one in Palmer or Wasilla, according to a United Way resource guide.
There is one medication-assisted therapy provider now: Sunshine Community Health Center, which runs a suboxone program that's enough in demand that it's expanding.
Methadone coming back
The closure of the Wasilla methadone clinic in August 2015 led to an inundation of Anchorage clinics by Mat-Su residents, state officials say.
The provider who ran Wasilla's clinic, Dr. John Zipperer, did not return a call for comment. Zipperer told the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman he based his decision on staffing issues and an ongoing FBI investigation about billing practices.
The rush of patients to Anchorage's two methadone clinics -- Alaska Treatment Solutions and Narcotic Drug Treatment Center -- overwhelmed the treatment system, state officials say. The only other methadone clinic in the state is operated by the Interior AIDS Association in Fairbanks.
CMS opted to open in Wasilla after Zipperer's clinic closed, CEO Nick Stavros said. The company hopes to open in Wasilla on May 1.
"Nationally, there's an opioid epidemic taking place. Any small city in America has the same problem," Stavros said. "There is just a shortage of treatment in Mat-Su."
The CMS facility will see 100 to 200 patients at a time, he said. The company provides medication-assisted therapy in conjunction with counseling.
Stavros said he was "blown away" at the planning commission hearing by the level of community support for substance-abuse treatment.
"Which is great, because they understand the value in treating drug addiction," he said.
New treatment center
Meanwhile, Wisdom Traditions is already up and running in a former daycare building near downtown Wasilla that's still under renovation.
Wisdom will provide general behavioral health counseling as well as substance-abuse treatment through an arm called Alaska Wisdom Recovery, according to program coordinator David Molletti. He estimated that at least half of the Wasilla center's patients will be seeking drug treatment, though all the company's clients get individualized care through what Molletti called an integral approach to treatment that could involve a 12-step-type program, more self-directed "rational recovery" or a different technique.
Along with Wyche, there will be several substance-abuse and mental health counselors coming back and forth from Anchorage, Molletti said.
Wyche hopes to start seeing one-on-one clients this week, with group therapy sessions to wait until the building remodel is finished.
There are still no options in the Valley for detox -- the process of clearing the chemical dependence on drugs from an addict's system -- and little long-term residential care during treatment or directly after.
The lack of local options eventually drove Makaen Serr to the Lower 48 after she overdosed on heroin at the Wasilla Fred Meyer store in 2014. She was taken to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center and released that day.
The heroin was easy to find, Serr said this week.
"I didn't even intend to buy drugs that day, but I OD'd at Fred Meyer," she said.
Serr said she left Alaska in search of new patterns but relapsed again -- she'd already sought treatment once before -- after getting to Nebraska. She got arrested driving cross-country and charged with heroin and marijuana concentrate possession. Her lawyer said she might get off on the turn-signal violation that got her pulled over.
Serr said she hopes she doesn't: The intensive outpatient treatment program at her halfway house is working well.
"It was the best thing that happened to me," she said.
The addition of two treatment options in Wasilla represents a "good start" for the Valley, but there's still a need for detox and long-term care, said her mother, Kennedy Serr of Palmer.
"Any more treatment programs we can get to alleviate the pressure from families here having to find resources outside the state," said Kennedy Serr. "We need more options."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing