RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The state of Georgia this month stopped giving licenses to clinics that treat people with medicine to overcome opioid addiction. Research shows medication-assisted treatment with therapy is the best way to treat addiction to painkillers and also heroin. But some Georgia state lawmakers say the problem is there are too many clinics and not enough regulation. WABE's Michell Eloy reports.
MICHELL ELOY, BYLINE: Zac Talbott says it's ironic running an opioid treatment program in this former doctor's office.
ZAC TALBOTT: The funny thing is, a lot of patients are like, this is where I first started getting prescribed pain pills (laughter).
ELOY: Now, they're coming to Talbott's clinic in Chatsworth, just 30 miles south of the Tennessee border, to get off of those pills. Outpatient clinics like this dispense drugs like methadone and buprenorphine, which are legal, synthetic opioids that block cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Patients show up to take their medicine in front of a nurse and get therapy. Talbott's clinic started treating patients in February, but he says they're already treating 150 people in a space that's fit for about 200, so he wants to expand.
TALBOTT: We're either going to go out this way or - you know, like, when schools do those portable-classroom type things?
ELOY: More than 1,200 people died of an overdose in Georgia in 2014 - a 10 percent increase over the previous year. So Talbott is outraged state lawmakers just put a one-year moratorium on new clinics.
TALBOTT: We're in the middle of an opioid addiction and overdose epidemic. You just think about that for a minute.
ELOY: But far more clinics have opened in Georgia than in neighboring states, says Republican Senator Jeff Mullis.
JEFF MULLIS: In fact, if you go to the parking lot of any of these clinics in northwest Georgia, you'll see as many Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, Kentucky tags as you do Georgia tags.
ELOY: Georgia has 67 opioid treatment programs - more than any other Southeast state. Tennessee has 12, Alabama, 24 - Mississippi, 1. Mullis says it's too easy for clinics to open here because Georgia doesn't require operators to show there's a need like other states, so it's open competition.
MULLIS: I don't want to take these facilities away from people who need it, but we need to manage and govern and regulate the ones that are here and the ones that are coming here.
ELOY: There's also stigma driving the decision to put a pause on more clinics. Critics skeptical of medication-assisted treatment say drugs like methadone are just replacing one addiction with another. But that's how some people are able to function, says Jonathan Connell, who heads the group Opioid Treatment Providers of Georgia.
JONATHAN CONNELL: If someone stays on a medication, that's not really the issue. People can still be dependent on something but not live in active addiction.
ELOY: Connell rejects Mullis' claim that Georgia clinics lack regulations. However, he does support the moratorium. His problem - there's no state enforcement that a treatment program is doing what it's supposed to do.
CONNELL: We've had treatment programs open up. Some people with limited knowledge of the field - how do we know that they are functioning correctly?
ELOY: And the Department of Community Health has only three people to keep track of the 67 clinics. But Georgia's clinics are filling a need that other Southern states are failing to provide, says the Chatsworth Clinic's Zac Talbott. He knows because he's also in recovery. While getting his masters in social work eight years ago in Tennessee, he was prescribed painkillers for some lower back pain. Then, things spiraled.
TALBOTT: And I still recall to this day learning how to help people with behavioral conditions in class and then going into the bathroom to shoot pills and/or heroin.
ELOY: He couldn't get a spot at a clinic in Tennessee, so he used to drive four hours back and forth from Knoxville to Georgia nearly every day to get treatment.
TALBOTT: The old Zac, that Zac that was in that graduate program for clinical social work, quickly came back.
ELOY: The moratorium went into effect June 1. It will last a year, to give the state time to look at new ways to regulate the clinics. For NPR News, I'm Michell Eloy in Atlanta.
MONTAGNE: And that story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WABE and Kaiser Health News.
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