Southern Delaware detox center closing today

Patients lacking insurance have no nearby alternative

By GINGER GIBSON — Friday, July 17, 2009

The News Journal

The Kent and Sussex Detoxification Center is the reason Samuel Lewis is alive.

Three years ago, he got clean at the 20-bed facility. And when he relapsed a few months ago and had another drink, the center was there for him again.

“I am proud to say I’m a recovering alcoholic and a drug addict and that placed saved my life,” said Lewis, 48, of Frankford.

But the lifeline for uninsured southern Delawareans has become a victim of state efforts to save money in a tight economy.

Today the state will shutter the center while pursuing a management contract with a private company or nonprofit. In the interim, the Department of Health and Social Services will transport patients to a private facility in New Castle County under contract with the state. Officials expect the southern Delaware center to reopen in two months.

For Lewis, it’s a case of misdirected priorities.

“They can find money in the budget to do this and do that, why can’t they find money in the budget to keep that place open?” he said. “What’s going to happen to the other people who want help and can’t get it?”

A wave of retirements in the small facility, likely the result of salary and benefit cuts, left state officials with too few employees to operate the center, said Henry Smith, deputy secretary of Department of Health and Social Services. Instead of replacing those employees, state officials opted to shrink state government while promoting privatization — one of Gov. Jack Markell’s priorities.

Markell has committed to reducing the state’s work force by not replacing more than 500 jobs, for a projected savings of $13.7 million.

“With that, the governor will continue to work with all of his Cabinet members to ensure that the state still provides essential services to our residents in the most responsive and responsible way,” Catherine Bakerian, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said in an e-mail.

Health and Social Services isn’t the only department seeing an increase in retirements — all agencies have seen a spike since the Legislature approved a 2.5 percent cut in state worker pay.

David Craik, the state’s pension director, said 533 state employees retired on June 30, an increase from the 370 who retired on the same date last year. Two weeks into July, 56 more people have applied to retire, Craik said, an increase over last July.

“It’s still hard to say [how many more] — we still have time left in the month,” Craik said.

Retirements haven’t been larger in any particular department, he said, but the uptick isn’t surprising.

“If it had been an 8 percent cut, I think we would have seen more people,” Craik said. “There was also a change in the life insurance program that took effect June 30. The amount of life insurance they could get as a retiree was going to be reduced if they left after June 30th.”

Smith said six departures at the Detoxification Center weren’t announced until after the state’s $3.09 billion budget was approved. The center didn’t face a budget cut, getting the same $300,000 it received last year, but the retirements created a dilemma.

The center needs 18 employees to operate, and they were going to be left with only 12, Smith said. They could have hired new nurses and staff members to replace those who left, since the positions are considered critical. Instead, Smith said, the remaining staff will be transferred to other facilities around the state where there are shortages.

When the state runs the center it costs $215 per bed, Smith said, but a nonprofit can operate the facility for $169 per bed — and the state will pay only for the beds that are being used.

Lewis said the gap in services could be detrimental for Kent and Sussex residents who desperately need treatment.

It’s the only facility in the two southern counties that accepts the uninsured, and there are a small number of other facilities in the two counties that accept addicts even with insurance, Lewis said.

Rep. V. George Carey, R-Milford, said he’s visited the center to meet with patients and staff several times and sees it as an important part of the community, providing a crucial service.

“Individuals with the problems are going to have to go to New Castle or have nothing and that’s a problem,” Carey said. “I’m just afraid everything will be in New Castle completely, forever, and that will make it bad for Kent and Sussex.”

Carey said he understands the state’s financial situation, but hopes that doesn’t prevent the state from continuing its commitment to the two southern counties.

“Maybe something will work out,” Carey said. “We’ll do the best we can with a bad situation.”

After more than 30 years, the Kent and Sussex Detoxification Center is an oasis for people who check themselves in — especially for those unable to trek north, Lewis said.

“I hate to a see a facility close down that can help people,” he said. “If its going to help somebody, it’s worth having.”