Inside Catholic Health's revised plan for dependency treatment center in Amherst

Fri, Oct 20th 2017 04:00 pm

After completing an exhaustive search of properties in Amherst, Catholic Health has found a new location to expand much needed chemical dependency treatment services. The new site at 210 John Glenn Drive will enable the health system to move and expand the services it currently offers at 3730 Sheridan Drive to provide area residents suffering from drug and alcohol addiction with easy access to counseling services; medication assisted treatment, including methadone; and primary care services in one, convenient location.

With this announcement, Catholic Health will cancel plans to open a treatment facility at 910 Millersport Highway. "Despite gaining initial approval and support from Amherst town officials, receiving no concerns from the Amherst Planning Department, and meeting previously established zoning requirements, it was clear we couldn't continue down this path," said Mark Sullivan, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Catholic Health. "Fortunately, we were able to find a site that satisfies all parties and will help us address the growing opiate crisis in our community, which continues to claim lives and devastate families."

Catholic Health spent considerable time looking at alternate sites in Amherst after neighbors expressed opposition to the Millersport location and the town suddenly imposed new zoning restrictions for medical offices that dispense medications. In mid-July, the town sent Catholic Health a revised map of alternate locations that complied with its new zoning regulations, after a previous version did not contain any sites that met patient care and state regulatory requirements, which specified that the new location be within the same 14226 zip code and a one-mile radius of the current site.

While the new map showed 129 sites scattered over multiple Amherst zip codes, it did not provide any addresses or street locations and seemed to contain mostly sites in shopping centers, industrial areas with limited public transportation, buildings with tenant lease restrictions, and occupied locations such as JC Penney and Red Lobster. After completing a lengthy process to decipher and visit the locations, Catholic Health found that while not in the 14226 zip code, which requires a lengthier regulatory review, the John Glenn site was one of the few that satisfied its other requirements, including regularly scheduled bus service. Last week, Catholic Health confirmed with Amherst's Building Commissioner that the site meets the town's new zoning requirements.

"After months of town officials politicizing this serious issue, imposing new zoning changes, and providing us with a nebulous list of locations that included existing restaurants, retail businesses and other unavailable properties, we were running out of viable options in Amherst," said Sullivan. "Thankfully, this site provided a workable solution for the community."

Catholic Health officials, Erie County Mental Health Commissioner Michael Ranney, Amherst Police Chief John Askey and a representative from the Erie County Health Department met with neighbors of the Millersport location in May to address their concerns. "There are certainly lessons to be learned for all involved," Sullivan added. "Our hope is that, moving forward, we can continue to dispel the outdated misconceptions and stereotypes that still exist regarding methadone treatment and help the public understand that this evidenced-based care is helping many individuals break the cycle of addiction and lead healthy, productive lives."

As some neighbors voiced strong opposition to the Millersport site, others reached out to Catholic Health with messages of support. "While there was a lot of misinformation circulated about the services we provide and the patients we treat, we heard from several area residents who wanted this center in their community," Sullivan continued. "For them, and for the many families in Amherst in need of these critical services, we are grateful we can move forward with our plans to serve those in need, which is a vital part of our mission."

The John Glenn site will require state approval and minor building modifications before an opening date is set. Catholic Health plans to schedule informational meetings with residents and businesses in proximity to the site in the next month. "Our plan is to make this center a model for other communities to help those who are suffering from chemical dependency receive holistic, medically-proven care all under one roof and close to home," Sullivan added. "We are confident this center will help us reverse a trend that is claiming the lives of all too many of our family members, friends and neighbors."

In recent weeks, the opiate epidemic was declared a national emergency and Erie County lawmakers earmarked $1 million in funding to deal with this crisis locally. According to the Erie County Department of Health, since the beginning of 2017, 233 county residents have died from confirmed and suspected opiate overdoses, averaging about one death per day. While the crisis touches all parts of Erie County, from all demographics, nearly half of the victims live outside the city of Buffalo in suburban and rural communities.

Catholic Health officials met with neighbors of the Millersport site to share their revised plans. "As a mission-based organization, with strong ties throughout the region, we respect the feelings the neighbors have for the community in which they live," Sullivan said. "Looking ahead, we can all agree these services are badly needed and will help families throughout Amherst."  

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