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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Opiate addicts fear Wisconsin budget cuts

Patients and staff at Madison Health Services, one of two methadone clinics in Madison, are worried about the future. They fear cuts to BadgerCare, a state insurance program that many recovering addicts rely on to pay for their daily dose of methadone.

"If it gets cut and we can't pay for it ourselves, they'll detox us [fast]," says Jennifer Smith, 30, quoting a counselor. Smith has been a patient at the clinic since 2006. "That won't be pretty."

A clinical director with the for-profit, California-based CRC Health Group, which owns Madison Health Services, says he's heard conflicting reports about how potential cuts to BadgerCare might affect treatment.

"Everyone you talk to says something different," says the director, who asked that his name not be used. "Wisconsin has historically been pro-treatment, so it's very concerning that cuts could affect drug treatment accessibility."

The state budget signed by Gov. Scott Walker on June 26 appropriated $1.2 billion to the Department of Health Services, $500 million less than what was needed to maintain the current level of services.

According to state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), the budget gave the department's secretary, Dennis Smith, sole authority to make cuts to whatever programs he likes - or doesn't like. Previously, the department was limited to cuts that improved efficiencies or scaled back administrative costs, according to Pocan.

"We don't know where they'll cut," he says. "But now they're able to target benefits, programs and eligibility requirements."

Department of Health Services spokeswoman Beth Kaplan says there isn't anything in the budget specifically targeting methadone treatment or other addiction services, but couldn't rule out that recovering addicts like Smith, who credit the treatment with allowing them to lead a normal life, might face some tough times ahead.

"There is no finished proposal at this point," she says.

According to Kaplan, 719 people between the two clinics receive methadone, a long-acting synthetic opiate that curbs withdrawal symptoms, giving patients an opportunity to rebuild their lives. Over time, addicts slowly taper off the methadone.

Kaplan couldn't say how many of those received state assistance for their treatment, but Smith says many patients she's spoken with do. Treatment runs upwards of $480 a month.

Justin Sherron, 29, enrolled in the clinic after becoming addicted to painkillers following a 2006 workplace accident in which a backhoe crushed his leg. Like Smith, Sherron is concerned that changes to BadgerCare might sabotage the gains he's made.

"I'm hoping to complete my treatment in the next year," he says. "But if they make cuts I'll be forced into a rapid detox. I don't think I could handle that."

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