After the closure of a Hallowell behavioral health facility last week, state officials are helping its roughly 350 clients find new treatment providers, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said this week.

Under its licensing with the state, Protea Integrated Health and Wellness LLC was supposed to notify the health department of any major changes in its operations. But according to health department spokeswoman Samantha Edwards, a state employee began looking into the closure only after learning about it from someone not affiliated with Protea.

Protea closed because of internal financial problems, Edwards said, but she could not go into detail about them. Protea did not close because of rate changes made by the state, she added.

A co-owner of Protea, Alex Tessman, did not respond immediately Wednesday afternoon to an emailed request for information. The company’s other co-owner is Leigh Leighton, according to Edwards, but Leighton’s contact information was not immediately available Wednesday.

The sudden closure of the Hallowell center has alarmed advocates for those with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

Before it closed its doors, Protea had been taking referrals for counseling, addiction therapy, medication management and other services, according to a sign in front of the shuttered agency. Its website has been changed recently to indicate that Protea closed Sept. 30, but that clients can receive their medical records by sending email to a designated address.

The Maine health department has dispatched its Rapid Response team to assist clients affected by the closure, which is standard procedure, Edwards said.

The department already has found new providers for all the clients who relied on Protea for Suboxone, an opioid medication that helps recovering drug users ease off of more powerful opioids such as heroin, Edwards said. She did not know immediately how many Protea clients had been taking Suboxone.

“The department is doing everything in our power to smoothly transition the provider’s clients,” Edwards wrote in response to emailed questions. “Contrary to recent media reports, Protea’s closure did not leave hundreds of clients without services. We have been able to work with other area providers to transfer clients. All Protea clients receiving Suboxone have access to a provider.”

It can be dangerous for those who are using medication-assisted treatment such as Suboxone to lose access to the medication suddenly, said Darren Ripley, coordinator of the Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery, in Augusta. Without it, he said, the recovering user will ask, “Where am I going to get it? Where can I go to receive that, or am I now going to have to go back (to using something more powerful)?”

Ripley described it as “bad form” for the agency to close abruptly.

“If an agency is going to be shutting down, ethically and morally it is their duty to refer their clients to another provider,” he said.

By Tuesday, Ripley had not received any queries from people directly affected by Protea’s closure, he said.

Neither Ripley nor other local mental health care providers had more information about the reasons Protea closed.

“Everyone was told to find a new provider,” said Sophie Gabrion, a spokeswoman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, earlier this week. “Two people I communicated with were given prescriptions that would last no more than a month and were told to find a new provider.”

Michael Mitchell, chief executive officer of Crisis & Counseling Centers, an agency that provides substance abuse and mental health services in Kennebec and Somerset counties, was not aware of anyone affected by the Protea closure who had sought his group’s services.

The sudden closure of a place such as Protea can be confusing and disruptive to those who rely on its services, Mitchell added, and it can reflect badly on other agencies such as Crisis & Counseling that are more established and consistent in their offerings.

Protea was licensed as a mental health agency with a division of the state health department that focuses on substance abuse and mental health service providers. Officials were unable to provide copies of the agency’s licenses by Wednesday afternoon.

Under its licensing, the company was obligated to notify the state of any major changes to its programming and negotiate with administrators about major changes or reductions in its services, Edwards said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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