Rockbridge Area Health Center expanding, offering opioid treatment

By Maya Lora

The Rockbridge Area Health Center is poised to become the first treatment center in the county where patients can access medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.

Medication-assisted treatment is a combination of medicines to relieve the biological component of opioid addiction and behavioral therapies. The health center hopes to roll out this new treatment by the end of 2019.

“It’s the gold standard in opioid treatment right now,” says Zachary Taylor, the behavioral health director for the center and a licensed professional counselor.

The center has received a $257,371 federal grant to fight the opioid crisis, increasingly recognized as a nationwide concern.

Taylor said the full extent of opioid addiction in the Rockbridge area remains unknown and underreported because there are few substance abuse treatment options for addicts.

Dr. Jamie Clark, DDS, works the In-School dentistry program. Photo courtesy of Rockbridge Area Health Center.

“They are seeking treatment outside the area or they’re just not seeking treatment at all,” Taylor said. “They often have to drive to Roanoke or Fishersville or Staunton to receive various types of treatment.”

There was only one death in 2017 in Rockbridge County attributed to an opioid overdose, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Statewide, 507 people died of opioid overdoses in 2017.

Taylor said a more accurate measure would be “functional impairments” caused by opioid abuse rather than fatal overdose rates. He named job loss, divorce, family separations, incarceration rates and children being removed from their homes by Child Protective Services as examples.

“To just go by the death count is a mistake,” Taylor said.

The grant will also be used to expand general substance abuse treatment, hire a case manager for behavioral health and expand psychiatric services.

Taylor said that patients often have limited options when it comes to mental health services because wait times can go as long as three or four weeks among private providers and at the community mental health clinic.

Increasingly, patients in the Rockbridge area are seeking out the health center for various services. To meet this growing need, the health center is currently undergoing a $6.6 million expansion that will more than double the facility in size. The health center obtained a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration to upgrade its infrastructure and then started planning the expansion in 2015.

The health center has remained open during construction.

Suzanne Sheridan, the chief executive officer since 1995, said the board of directors realized the facility would need to expand in 2014 after it transitioned from a free clinic to a community health center.

Sheridan said the free clinic business model was no longer sustainable. When it became a health center, the facility obtained a federal grant that now covers 25 percent of its annual budget.

Additionally, while the health center focuses on low-income patients, any person can use its services. The health center accepts the vast majority of insurances and also serves the underinsured and the uninsured.

The health center added pediatric, prenatal, substance abuse disorder treatment and dental services after the transition.

“The people needed a lot more than the free clinic could give,” Sheridan said.

The health center’s expansion will add extra facilities, such as patient exam and counseling rooms. Additionally, seven medical teams dedicated to pediatric, woman’s health and general healthcare will operate in the new space.

The facility has seen an explosion in patient numbers since 2014. According to data gathered by the health center, the number of patients served increased 94 percent just from 2014 to 2017 and the number of visits provided increased four-fold in the same time frame.

Construction inside the Rockbridge Area Health Center

On Jan. 1, Virginia will be expanding Medicaid coverage to an estimated 400,000 more residents. While the health center expects its numbers to rise, Sheridan does not expect the Medicaid expansion to have a large impact. She said many of those patients already use the health center.

Sheridan said many of those patients do not have other options for healthcare services. The Rockbridge area is considered a health professional shortage area, which makes hiring healthcare professionals difficult. When Rockbridge Pediatrics closed in December 2017, those patients turned to the health center.

Sheridan said that as of last month, the health center this year had already exceeded the number of patients served in all of 2017. The facility’s expansion will help accommodate the center’s growing number of patients.

“We believe this building will help us meet the need in the future of the community,” Taylor said, adding that it should be adequate for the next 10 to 20 years.