WORTHINGTON - Worthington’s only chemical dependency treatment center will shut its doors Thursday, creating limited treatment options and greater barriers to individuals needing those services.

Meridian Behavioral Health’s closure will end a five-year chemical treatment center presence at the Prairie Justice Center in Worthington. Formerly New Beginnings, the outpatient center offered chemical dependency treatment and counseling to patients, including Nobles County Jail inmates.

In the last four years, the center provided treatment to an average of more than 70 patients per year. In the first 11 months of this year, services were provided to approximately 90 patients.

According to Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson, the county first learned of Meridian’s departure via email - a 30-day termination notice, which was required as part of the lease contract. Meridian’s three employees, said employee Nikki Reiter, learned later than that.

The Waverly-based provider’s explanation for the closure of its Worthington branch, both Johnson and Reiter say, was that the center wasn’t meeting Meridian’s financial expectations.

Johnson said he made an attempt to adjust the rent - which he said was $1,841 per month since the county began leasing the space to New Beginnings in 2013. Meridian, however, wasn’t interested.

“It was pretty much, door got shut and that was it,” Johnson said.

Calls to upper management at Meridian were not returned by presstime.

Center experiences ownership changes

The chemical dependency treatment center first opened its doors in August 2013 at the PJC. An ownership change occurred in October 2017 when Meridian acquired New Beginnings.

According to a press release announcing the acquisition, Meridian Behavioral Health boasted its status as the largest provider of behavioral health services in Minnesota.

According to Reiter, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor who has worked at the PJC location since 2015, the company hired a third counselor recently.

“Two employees drive an hour one way to come here and work,” she said.

The center recently noted an increase in individuals following through with recommended treatment. Better marketing of the center by Meridian and expanding programs to include DWI education courses could have helped, Reiter said.

“That’s definitely something we could have done,” she added.

Inmate treatment addressed ‘underlying issue’

According to rough estimates of patient numbers, the treatment center’s caseload over the last four years was climbing.

In 2015, the center provided treatment to approximately 25 outpatients. By 2017 and 2018, approximately 55 and 65 outpatients, respectively, were served.

Another important service the center provided was treatment to Nobles County Jail inmates. That was part of the allure to get the treatment center within the PJC, said Rock-Nobles Community Corrections Director Jon Ramlo.

While the number of participants from the jail fluctuated, treatment was provided to roughly 25 inmates per year in years 2015, 2017 and 2018. There was a spike in 2016, when approximately 39 inmates received treatment. The inmates who received treatment were in addition to the center’s outpatient caseload.

According to Nobles County Jail Program Coordinator Ryan Como, the majority of inmates receiving treatment did so voluntarily rather than a part of a court-mandated sentence.

“A lot of them looked at a way of bettering themselves while they were here,” Como said.

Another benefit, he added, was that individuals are generally more apt to start and finish a treatment program while incarcerated, since they aren’t balancing time between a job and personal life.

Como said there were more inmates interested in treatment, particularly from Lincoln County, S.D., with which the Nobles County Jail has a contract to house inmates.

Unfortunately, the lack of funding from South Dakota did not allow those individuals to pursue treatment.

“That was kind of a damper,” Reiter said.

Como said the opportunity for inmates to at least begin treatment was valuable, and the jail hates to see it go.

“We see an awful lot of chemical usage one way or another being the underlying factor why people are coming in here,” he said.

Without the service located at the PJC, Jail Administrator Monette Berkevich said inmates will no longer have that option.

“Which is sad,” she said.

Outpatient treatment ‘crucial’ to successful recovery

While the jail made use of the treatment center, it’s not alone in being affected by the closure.

As part of the criminal justice system, Rock-Nobles Community Corrections officers make treatment recommendations to probationers on a needs basis.

Before a recommendation is made for an individual with a criminal case involving drugs or alcohol, a chemical dependency assessment is ordered. If a pre-screen necessitates further assessment, individuals are either referred to a Rule 25 assessor at Nobles County Community Services or, if they have private insurance, directly to Meridian or another treatment center.

However, the number of probationers with private insurance, Ramlo said, is minimal.

According to Nobles County Community Services Director Stacie Golombiecki, her office had received 150 referrals for a chemical dependency assessment so far this year.

Individuals pay for the assessment on an income-based sliding scale. From there, community services has referred 52 individuals this year to receive outpatient treatment.

“I can’t definitely say that they went to New Beginnings (Meridian), because it’s client choice,” she said.

If someone is referred to an inpatient or outpatient treatment program, there’s funding available for those who qualify from the consolidated chemical dependency treatment fund - a mixture of federal, state and local dollars, Golombiecki said.

A number of participants in the local Minnesota Cornerstone Drug Court program are also required to complete treatment. That treatment plan is individualized, explained Heather Kirchner, treatment court coordinator for Rock, Nobles, Murray and Pipestone treatment courts.

Project Morningstar, a residential recovery center, also relies on treatment options for its residents, said Beth Hoekstra, its director of operations.

Given that 80 to 90 percent of Project Morningstar residents come from either inpatient treatment centers or some kind of correctional facility, Hoekstra said it’s important they begin outpatient treatment after being released from a structured facility.

“It’s crucial to have that outpatient treatment service to keep them involved in their recovery program and overall treatment,” she said. “If they’re not getting right into an outpatient program, it really decreases their chances of success in recovery because of the lack of services.”

Individuals will now mostly be referred to Sanford Health’s Chemical Dependency program in Luverne, Agape in Windom or New Life Treatment Center in Woodstock.

Ramlo suspects that will create another challenge - transportation.

“Most of these people have lost their license because of a DWI or something like that,” he said, “So then the issue becomes transportation and resources to get to those programs and services.”

Kirchner said transportation has always been difficult, but as sober individuals, drug court participants generally have more support from either family or friends.

“It will just take some time to get used to a new norm,” she said.

County hopeful for future mental health tenant

According to Johnson, FEMA will be temporarily housed in the vacated treatment center space as representatives work on flood-related issues in the area stemming from this summer’s heavy rains.

The county has also recently submitted a grant application to make less than $1 million in renovations to the current space to facilitate a mental health center. Johnson doesn’t expect a funding decision by the Minnesota Department of Human Services until mid to late spring.  

In the meantime, there’s a shared hope for a chemical dependency center to open a new location in the Worthington.

“It’s definitely worth the fight,” Reiter said. “It’s needed.”