To really help a chronic drinker, you need to get the whole family involved, said Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Tim Navarre of Kenai.
So he and others are pleased with plans to open a residential drug and alcohol treatment center early next year on mile 11.2 Kalifornsky Beach Road.
The new Serenity House probably will open with four beds, a staff of eight and a budget of about $260,000, said Marty Richman, chief executive for Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna.
CPGH Inc., the nonprofit corporation that operates the borough-owned hospital, has leased a former bed-and-breakfast to house it. The hospital has been advertising to hire a program manager, counselors and counseling assistants.
Serenity House will not be the hospital's first try at residential drug and alcohol treatment. Its former Family Recovery Center opened in 1986, but closed in 1995 after the CPGH Inc. board discovered it was losing about $1 million per year.
"They hadn't ever broken it out before that," Navarre said. "Since then, they've been trying to come up with the right mix -- something they can afford that meets the community need."
Assembly member Jack Brown of Nikiski said the CPGH Inc. board closed the Family Recovery Center without consulting the assembly. The assembly responded by cutting $500,000 from the hospital budget.
"I was so upset and a lot of people in the community were upset that lots of people who needed treatment would have to go outside the community," Brown said.
As a stop-gap, Navarre said, the assembly gave money to the Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. CICADA beefed up its out-patient treatment, said executive director Henry Novak.
However, no one has opened a new residential treatment program. So, peninsula residents who need residential treatment have been forced to travel to Kodiak or Anchorage. In the last year, Novak said, CICADA has referred 43 peninsula clients, including 38 from the central peninsula, for residential treatment in other communities.
"With the closing of the Family Recovery Center, we lost our ability for people who need residential treatment to have it in our community, which is the preferred way, because you can get the family involved and there is less disruption in their lives," Novak said.
Local treatment also allows clients access to family physicians and to local after-care and mental health services, he said.
Meanwhile, there can be a two-week wait to get into residential treatment in Kodiak and a six-week wait to get into residential treatment in Anchorage.
"If a chronic drinker ends up at the hospital for detox, we'll asses them," Novak said. "If they need residential treatment, they're not going to wait six weeks. They'll start drinking again. We'll never see them until after the bed date."
Navarre said there is no doubt about the need for residential treatment facilities on the peninsula.
"We have to start small and build from that," he said.
He said several factors led to the losses at the Family Recovery Center. It was part of the hospital campus and had psychiatrists on its staff. In addition, many of its clients could not afford to pay, he said.
"They were getting a lot of referrals from the court," Navarre said. "They didn't figure the balance. They didn't say, 'We need eight paying customers, then we can take the needs cases.'"
He said he hopes the hospital will make such calculations this time. Brown said he will be happy if Serenity House just breaks even. Novak said chronic alcoholics often cannot pay. Many have no health insurance.
"They've burned a lot of bridges," Novak said.
Richman said Serenity House will be different from the 16-bed Family Recovery Center.
"There will be physician back-up, but it's not a psychiatric-model facility," he said. "It's a social model. We'll use counselors to provide the care."
The Family Recovery Center included a strong mental health component, he said, but Serenity House will focus mainly on substance abuse.
"We're not taking patients that have heavy psychiatric involvement," Richman said. "It's not a mental health unit."
He said the CPGH Inc. board assumes three-quarters of Serenity House clients will be unable to pay.
"To be frank, the service is so vital to the community that the board went into it knowing there would be a loss the first year of $141,000," he said. "Over time, that will shrink. I don't know if it will ever break even."
Richman said the hospital will seek grants to subsidize the service. Meanwhile, some health insurance policies do cover some of the costs of drug and alcohol treatment.
"The Veterans Administration has indicated interest in referring folks to us. Medicaid does cover it," Richman said.
Treatment at Serenity House likely will last 20 or 30 days, he said. That means it could treat 50 or 55 patients per year. There is room for six beds, he said, but before expanding, the CPGH Inc. board wants to make sure the program works. It is a modest first step, but an important one, he said.
"Once we're comfortable, we'll expand to six beds," Richman said. "Certainly, there's a need on the peninsula for more than six beds, but we want to do it right, then grow."
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