Patients fear for future of drug treatment center

Yvonne Brown spent two years in a nightmare world, addicted to heroin and supporting her habit by shoplifting and other petty crimes.

But since she came to a Timonium treatment center three years ago, the 38-year-old mother says the counseling, group therapy and daily shots of methadone she has received have put her on the right track. Now, she supports herself by cleaning offices and is heroin-free.


"It gets so you know exactly what to expect," she said of the program at Pathfinders Addiction Services. "You feel like you're being helped out because you're in a steady routine."

But the future of Pathfinders, which treats 285 former drug addicts at its spartan offices off York Road, is anything but steady because it is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the county.


County officials are moving toward having another agency take over the treatment program, while Pathfinders is asking a judge to order the government to reverse its decision to reject the addiction service's bid for a new three-year, $1.3 million contract.

The dispute is scheduled to be heard today by Baltimore CountyCircuit Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr.

"People are scared they're not going to have a program to go to," said Ms. Brown. "I know I'm scared."

Arthur H. Burris, director of Pathfinders, said a number of other patients have similar concerns.

"At this point, they have a right to be. Their future is uncertain," said Mr. Burris, whose organization has provided drug treatment services for Baltimore County since July 1987.

In recent weeks, patients have flooded county officials with telephone calls expressing their concern, vented frustration at meetings at the center and signed petitions demanding continued funding for Pathfinders.

"We're trying everything we can," said Ms. Brown, who delivered the petition with 150 signatures last week to the offices of Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden and Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd.

Barbara Wilgis, another patient who was on heroin for five years before kicking it in 1982, said she's "extremely worried" that replacing Pathfinders will mean losing her counselor of the past two years, a woman who became an important part in her recovery.


"You build up a special relationship with someone and if that person is to leave, it'll hurt," said Mrs. Wilgis.

County officials say the patients are upset because Mr. Burris needlessly alarmed them by distributing misleading memos that gave the false impression that their treatment may be terminated.

That is not the case, said Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county'sOffice of Substance Abuse.

He said the county is committed to continuing treatment for Pathfinders patients and he has written letters to patients and met with them at the center to reaffirm that commitment.

"I guarantee that there will be services at that site for those clients. I can't guarantee that it will be Pathfinders, but the service will continue," Mr. Gimbel said.

He acknowledged that his office is working with another agency thatmay be called in to take over when the Pathfinders contract expires June 30, but he declined to identify the agency.


But the patients say they are not reassured. "The question is, if the system works now, why change it?" asked Mrs. Wilgis.

The legal dispute centers on the portion of the contract submitted by Pathfinders that specifies the amount of wages to be paid to the agency's 15 employees.

The county's request for proposals put out last year specified that all bids include wage specifications based on state salary scales.

Pathfinders' bid didn't do that, but instead specified cost-of-living pay increases of about 4 percent each year over the term of the contract.

Mr. Burris said that tying wages to a fixed pay scale is unrealistic because so many variables involving the economy, operating costs and inflation complicate matters when trying to forecast salaries through to 1994.

He said the requirement may have been part of the reason why Pathfinders was the only bidder on the contract -- even though at least 15 other drug treatment agencies were also notified of the opportunity to submit bids.


Mr. Burris also believes that Mr. Gimbel is determined to put Pathfinders out of business, even though it provides a badly needed service and has won high marks for the quality of the care provided.

"Most methadone treatment centers don't have to go through competitive bidding. This is the second time in four years that we've had to go through it," he said.

In papers filed in Circuit Court, Pathfinders alleges that Mr. Gimbel "bore an unjustified personal animus" toward the agency and its director.

The papers also allege that Mr. Gimbel "actively engaged in attempts to undermine the plaintiff's performance of its responsibilities and obligations to its clients."

Mr. Burris would not elaborate on the allegations.

Mr. Gimbel said the charges are false. He said his office is required by county regulations to seek competitive bids, and that Pathfinders' bid was unanimously rejected by an eight-member committee on which he serves only after repeated negotiations with Mr. Burris.


The contract for Pathfinders services is paid completely by state funds, Mr. Gimbel said.

The cost-of-living increases proposed in Pathfinders' bid would mean that if state officials decided next year not to pay for those increases, the county would be committed to picking up the $40,000 tab.

"If we approved their contract, our committee would have been committed to almost $40,000 that we don't know we're going to have," he said.

He added that if Mr. Burris had agreed to take out the cost-of-living increases, the contract probably would have been awarded by now. "The last thing I want is for these clients to feel insecure," Mr. Gimbel said.

But patients say that because of the dispute, that's exactly how they feel.

"The people that are losing here are the clients who have been helped so far," said Mrs. Wilgis. "They could revert back to their old ways, and no one wants that."