Wellesley residents came out in force at Monday’s two-and-a-half-hour Board of Selectmen’s meeting, which was devoted to discussion of the Coleman Institute opioid and alcohol treatment center that’s readying to treat patients at a Lower Falls office building by year-end. It presented residents with their first opportunity to hear directly from the healthcare organization and for the organization to hear straight from residents about their concerns regarding the outpatient facility slated to open at 30 Washington St., nearby several schools as well as Warren Park.
While company officials heard from supporters, and were assured numerous times by residents that Wellesley is open to having a treatment facility, they mostly got an earful from parents concerned that the office is located so close to where their kids go to school and play. Parents expressed concern that addicts being treated, and those turned away, could be a threat to their kids. Parents also criticized Coleman for not engaging sooner with the community about its plans, and asked the Board of Selectmen pointed questions about why it wasn’t taking steps to at least delay the office’s opening until the community can further explore the issue.
Our report in September that the Coleman Institute would be opening caught town officials by surprise and resulted in parents organizing a meeting to hash out their concerns in anticipation of Monday’s Board of Selectmen meeting. The Board announced in late September that it would be inviting Coleman reps to attend its Oct. 22 meeting.
More than 100 people, some standing, jammed into Great Hall. Three reps from BayMark Health and its Coleman Institute business — including founder Dr. Peter Coleman — answered questions (through the Board of Selectmen) from more than 2 dozen citizens. The majority of those who spoke identified themselves as parents of children who attend St. John School and/or Schofield Elementary School, both situated near Coleman’s planned office. (You can watch a Wellesley Public Media recording of the meeting below.)
Doctors and other healthcare professionals were among residents and former residents who spoke. They all empathized with the need to treat addicts, though differed on whether the current location is appropriate.
Dr. Patricia Helm, a pediatrician and Wellesley resident with a child at St. John, described herself as an advocate for all children, including those affected by the opioid crisis. “My concern lies only with the specific location that the Coleman Institute has selected. There is no community that is untouched by this epidemic. This disease is in Wellesley. The question is: Where is the safest location in town?”
She expressed concern about patients leaving the treatment center while sedated and in the care of untrained family members or friends. Dr. Helm’s remarks fired up the crowd, which broke into applause and was soon after reminded that such outbursts wouldn’t be tolerated by the Board out of concern that other speakers could be intimidated.
While the reps addressed most questions raised throughout the night, the big one left unanswered was whether the business might consider relocating. Selectwoman Beth Sullivan Woods emphasized that this meeting for was sharing information, not business negotiations.
However, Dr. Coleman acknowledged at the end of the session that he heard residents’ concerns loud and clear (it would have been impossible not to) and said his team will discuss how to address them. The Board says residents should sign up for its news announcements to keep posted.
BayMark/Coleman has its say
The information forum began with a brief presentation by the BayMark and Coleman reps, whose organization has been around for about 20 years and has more than a dozen Coleman Institutes across the country. They stressed that they are not a methadone clinic weening people off of really bad drugs via less bad, but still addictive, substitutes. Rather, they use a nonaddictive opioid-blocking drug called Naltrexone that’s disseminated in “microdoses” via an implant designed to put people on the road to recovery in a matter of 3-8 days (treatment is followed by months of case management/counseling).
They touted a 98% success rate for getting withdrawal treatment patients to embrace Naltrexone (though it was the other 2% that some residents wondered about, and how those people might impact the surrounding area).
“We wanted a suburban Boston location that’s safe, progressive, open-minded,” said Andrew Blake, BayMark COO. He said patients are seeking an “upscale, discreet environment” like this and that the business looks forward to being good neighbors (parents latched onto that word “discreet” later on to question whether 30 Washington St. is really so tucked away given the busyness of that business district and school zone).
In answering questions throughout the night, the organization’s reps stressed the normalcy of the operation, including its planned 8:30am-5pm hours, and limitation to just 4 treatment rooms. Dr. Coleman at one point during the night said he wished people in the room could go hang out in the parking lot or lobby of another facility and see just how nonthreatening of a situation this will really be. “We don’t intend to set up halfway houses for people to live in Wellesley,” he said.
Citizens have at it
Once the BayMark/Coleman reps were done with their opening remarks, residents had their say.
The first five speakers all raised concerns regarding the location, the transparency of the organization’s entry to town, or what sort of approval process was needed to set up the business. One resident asked why a committee of stakeholders (including residents, hospitals, police) couldn’t be formed to explore other possible locations in town.
Another cited concern over the unpredictability of patients who are in a “fragile state” and volunteered to donate her time to help Coleman explore other possible locations. She said the town sends a mixed message by being so vigilant about requiring people eating out to order food if they want to drink even one glass of wine, yet allowing a detox facility to locate near schools for young kids.
Others wanted answers about the process used to screen patients and their support people. As things got more intense toward the end of the night, one attendee warned that protesters would show up with signs outside the office if plans don’t change.
A lawyer representing a group of concerned parents urged BayMark/Coleman “to take a pause, take a step back, engage with the community” to find another location that would work out better for the business and town in the long run. He encouraged the organization to take the sort of community engagement approach that federal guidelines suggest opioid treatment programs (OTP) like methadone clinics take (operations like Coleman’s are not categorized as OTPs).
Citizens spoke out directly in support of the treatment facility, too.
One parent said she was “really saddened by the close mindedness” of some of what she was hearing, and saw the arrival of the Coleman Institute as an opportunity for the town to be progressive thinkers.
A former resident, who described herself as a nurse practitioner who works in the addiction field and has two grown children in town who have 8 kids between them, surveyed the crowd by show of hands to see how many in the room have people in their life that they know suffer from addiction. At least a third of the people raised their hands. She urged residents not to act “as though junkies are going to be preying on their children. This is not the case…These are human beings. These are our family… people do get well. You have to give them a chance.”
Longtime resident Andy Langowitz said he thinks the location of the Coleman Institute seems reasonable for such a medical practice and that he would be proud to have it in town. It sure beats the couch that his nephew detoxed on a few years back for lack of a nearby treatment facility. “For those of you who have young children in the area I appreciate your fears,” he said. “But think for a moment that those young children will grow up and some of them may need detox, and you may wish that you had allowed a detox facility to be nearby.”
Separately, a recovering addict who works with substance users spoke up to say that new treatment methods should be encouraged, and that he was excited to hear about Coleman’s approach. “The ones seeking treatment are not the ones to be worried about,” he said.
The Board took small bunches of questions at a time, then dished them to the BayMark/Coleman reps, town counsel Tom Harrington, themselves or the police.
Chief Jack Pilecki said the department reached out to police in 10 other communities where Coleman has similar facilities and reported that no incidents had been reported. Responding to another question about what it’s like for the police to deal with heroin users, Pilecki said those individuals usually have overdosed and need to be treated with Narcan and sent to the hospital. It’s people who drink too much that cause the cops a lot more grief, he said.
Attorney Harrington said the town needed to treat this business as it would any other that is allowed to set up shop according to town bylaws and zoning rules. If residents want to try to change a bylaw then they’d have to go through the usual process of getting an article on a warrant, getting it approved at Town Meeting, and so forth.
(What I took away from that is that the timing of this process wouldn’t work in light of Coleman’s plans to open soon.)
But at least a dialogue has begun. We’ll see whether Dr. Coleman and his team will respond to residents’ concerns in a way that will satisfy those opposed to their current plans.