There’s a chance that another agency will take over Serenity House and operate a similar substance use treatment program.

Serenity House, one of the longest-running substance use recovery homes in Maine, is closing its 16-bed treatment program in Portland, although there’s hope that a similar program or another agency will take over the Mellen Street building.

Executive Director Bob Dawber Dawber said an inflexible funding formula by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made it impossible to keep operating Serenity House without losses.

The house, which has been operating since 1967, will close Friday in the midst of a statewide opioid crisis in which an average of one person is dying every day from a drug overdose. The agency that operated Serenity House, York County Shelter Programs, opened a new residential substance use treatment program in Alfred a few weeks ago that serves 24 patients.

Serenity House stopped accepting new clients a few months ago, and there was only one client left there this week. That person will be transferred to one of the agency’s other programs, said Bob Dawber, executive director. Serenity House was a long-term residential treatment program in which clients would typically stay three to six months.

York County Shelter Programs will continue to have offices at the Mellen Street building, and the apartments on the same property will remain, Dawber said.

He said financial problems led to Serenity House shutting down, with $350,000 in annual revenues from Medicaid not enough to cover the more than $500,000 needed to operate the program.

Those in the recovery community lamented the loss of Serenity House, a landmark program.

“Serenity House is such an important component of Maine’s system of recovery programs,” said Bob Fowler, executive director of Milestone Recovery, which operates a detox center in Portland and a residential recovery program in Old Orchard Beach. “To close any program during this opioid crisis is very unfortunate.”

‘LOSING A TREMENDOUS RESOURCE’

Jeff Sargent, 47, of Portland said he graduated from Serenity House in June, and the program helped him recover from alcohol abuse. He’s now working full time as a waiter in Portland and has his own apartment.

“I didn’t have to pay a dime, and they saved my life,” Sargent said. “Portland is losing a tremendous resource, and it’s a shame they are closing.”

Maine’s opioid crisis has continued unabated over the past five years, with 418 overdose deaths in 2017, and this year so far being on pace to record a similar number of deaths.

Fowler said it’s not surprising to see a recovery house shutting down because of the challenging funding issues that nonprofits face in operating treatment programs.

Dawber said an inflexible funding formula by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services – which required the treatment program to provide no more than 16 beds – made it impossible to keep operating without losses.

Federal law caps residential treatment at 16 beds, but Serenity House had operated with 33 beds until 2011, when a waiver allowing an exception to the federal rule expired. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services decided not to seek another waiver, and Serenity had to cut from 33 to 16 beds. That meant less federal funding, which was a major cause of the house’s financial problems, Dawber said

“We tried really hard to keep Serenity House afloat,” he said.

IN TALKS TO FIND A SUCCESSOR

York County Shelter Programs, a nonprofit with a $5 million annual budget, took over Serenity House in 2012 but had been unable to find a long-term, sustainable financial solution, Dawber said.

The agency has been in consultations with other groups about taking over Serenity House, but there’s no deal yet.

“We want the legacy to continue,” Dawber said. “The work of recovery that has gone on there is vital to the community. It would make sense, from the York County Shelter Programs’ perspective, to see 30 Mellen St. as a location that will continue working to serve the public.”

Dawber said Serenity House’s financial problems and the inflexibility of federal rules led to the shelter program seeking another way to serve the public. York County agreed to spend $600,000 to fund the Layman’s Way treatment program that opened recently in Alfred, and the new fiscal model will allow the nonprofit to supplement the program with other funding sources, Dawber said.

Eventually, the agency hopes to serve 65 patients at the residential treatment center in Alfred, he said.

BETTER WAY TO RUN PROGRAMS

Serenity House served men in recovery, while Layman’s Way has slots for men and women.

Diane Gerry, chief operating officer for York County Shelter Programs, said federal rules made it counterproductive to raise money for treatment programs, preventing the nonprofit from making Serenity House financially solvent. There are no such rules for the new Layman’s Way program because it uses county money and doesn’t have to follow federal rules, giving York County Shelter Programs the ability to raise the outside money that will allow it to expand in the future.

“The Layman’s Way program is a great example of how to run these recovery homes,” Gerry said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph

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