Health & Human Services

More Than Half of Minnesota's Detox Centers Quietly Closed

December 9, 2013
 

At the detox center on Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, the evening of Dec. 4 began like many others — with the cries of a severely intoxicated patient echoing through the ammonia-scented corridors.

“I feel like I’m going to die!” cried the woman, who was sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. “God, please help me!”

Two nurses caught her as her legs began to buckle, then eased her into a chair and took her vital signs, and within 20 minutes she was passed out on a bed of clean linen, where her sleep was deep and unhurried.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you help these people?’ ” said center director Sharlee Benson, gesturing toward the patient. “This is why. Because addiction is a nasty thing, and people need a safe harbor.”

But drug and alcohol detoxification centers like the one on Chicago Avenue are fast becoming relics of the past.

Quietly and with little debate, more than half of the licensed detox centers in Minnesota have shut down in recent years. There are now just 23 in the state, down from nearly 50 two decades ago, as counties from the Iron Range to the Red River Valley have sought to cut costs.

The network of treatment centers grew rapidly in small towns and cities across the state in the 1970s, a period when Minnesota sought to decriminalize public intoxication and create safe, inexpensive alternatives to c©ounty jails and hospital ERs.

Today in many counties, detoxification is seen as a dispensable luxury for a small population of chronic alcoholics, many of them homeless or mentally ill — even though the patients also come from comfortable homes in prosperous communities.

Yet the need for acute care for people with severe addictions has never been greater, state and county officials say. The rate of binge drinking among Minnesotans is among the highest in the country; and a surge in heroin-related deaths has alarmed public safety officials.

Increasingly, the burden of treating chronic alcohol and drug users has fallen on local sheriffs, police and hospital ERs, which are ill-equipped to provide counseling or long-term treatment.

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