UNDERHILL — The Maple Leaf Treatment Center is no longer accepting patient referrals and will close for at least a month next week when the inpatient drug treatment facility discharges its last current patient, state officials confirmed Wednesday.
Officials are investigating complaints about the facility, though they would not say what the nature of those complaints are.
Maple Leaf has a “preferred provider” designation with the state, meaning the state will refer patients to the facility and is also required to make sure they have adequate staffing to provide quality services.
Following up on news tips in mid-December, VTDigger interviewed Health Department workers charged with oversight for treatment centers and Maple Leaf’s CEO. Both said four simultaneous staff resignations had stretched the center’s resources, but new hires would allow the facility to remain open.
Two resigned because they found new jobs, and two left for reasons that Dr. Catey Iacuzzi, the Maple Leaf CEO, said she would not discuss.
“It’s a human resources issue, and I can’t really talk about personnel,” Iacuzzi said at the time. Iacuzzi did not return a call Wednesday seeking further comment on the closure of Maple Leaf’s inpatient facility.
The treatment center reported the staff departures to state officials and were planning to operate at diminished capacity while they hired and trained new workers, state officials said, but it appears they were unable to add sufficient new staff.
Maple Leaf operates a separate outpatient drug treatment program in Colchester that will continue to operate, according to state officials.
Cindy Thomas, director of the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs (ADAP), said during a Dec. 16 interview they had received no complaints about the Underhill facility. Then on Dec. 19, a Health Department spokesman said they received multiple complaints about the facility.
Thomas said Wednesday she received the first complaint two hours after being interviewed by VTDigger. Her department has received five complaints to this point. She said she’s unable to discuss the nature of those complaints.
Thomas and a team from ADAP conducted a site visit at Maple Leaf on Dec. 22, and Maple Leaf executives presented a plan to close for 30 days while they hire and train new staff, which the state has accepted, Thomas said.
Thomas said a Health Department attorney notified the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR) and the Division of Licensure and Protection (DLP) of the complaints she received.
An OPR official said they could not confirm if they are investigating a specific licensee. The office has its own prosecutors and can file criminal charges against licensees and any such charges are public record.
DLP surveys and investigates complaints against health care facilities to ensure compliance with state and federal regulations. Suzanne Leavitt, DLP assistant director said they received the complaints and are investigating them.
Nurse surveyors working for DLP made unannounced site visits on Dec. 27 and 28, according to Leavitt. They surveyors review records and policy as well as interview staff and patients. Leavitt said the investigation is ongoing. Any findings will be posted online once the investigation is complete, likely sometime in late January, she said.
Maple Leaf, with 41 inpatient drug treatment beds, accounts for 30 percent of the inpatient beds at treatment centers that take referrals from the state. Serenity House in Wallingford has 24 and Valley Vista in Bradford has 71 — with an additional nine beds for adolescents. Valley Vista is the only adolescent program in the state.
Thomas said Wednesday that there are currently enough beds to meet demand for inpatient treatment, and if those beds were to fill up, the state can make referrals to a program in Dublin, New Hampshire.
Inpatient treatment is typically reserved for patients with acute needs and provides them with medical or mental health services. Patients live at the facility for a period of time to detoxify. Outpatient treatment involves regular visits to receive medication and counseling, but patients live on their own.
Both Thomas and Iacuzzi, the Maple Leaf CEO, said the facility is struggling to find qualified staff, especially licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselors — a problem that is not unique to Maple Leaf.
Thomas said the demand for treatment workers in doctor’s offices and medical practices is siphoning staff away from substance abuse clinics because those providers can pay counselors more money.
Vermont will pay for doctors treating patients for opioid addiction to hire nurses and counselors based on the number of Medicaid patients seen by their practice. Medicaid is the low-income government health care program, or essentially a government-run insurance program for the poor.
That program has been successful in getting more doctors to treat opioid addiction, but treatment providers and state officials say the overall number of licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselors has not kept pace with demand leading to shortages at treatment centers.
Licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselors are regulated by the Office of Professional Regulation, but only after a 2016 law change that took effect in September. Prior to that they were regulated by the Health Department.
Colin Benjamin, director of OPR, said it’s going to be several months before OPR can provide historical figures on the number of alcohol and drug abuse counselors licensed by the state as it is still importing data provided by the Health Department.
As a result, it’s unclear whether the number of counselors has increased in recent years as the state focuses greater resources on treating opioid addiction, and if so, by how many.
There are currently 369 licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselors, and 354 people with lower level licenses who still work in the drug treatment field, according to figures provided by Benjamin.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that state officials informed VTDigger of the complaints about Maple Leaf Treatment Center on Dec. 22. That information was provided on Dec. 19.