100 D.C. Addiction Workers Face Layoff, Union Says

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration plans to lay off more than 100 drug addiction treatment workers by the first week in September and has already told about two dozen employees at its detoxification center to take administrative leave, according to union officials who represent the workers.

At a meeting Tuesday to protest the layoffs, leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 383 said the Detoxification and Stabilization Center (DSC), which treats about 3,400 residents yearly for drug addiction, is effectively closed.

"They sent all the employees home," said Dorothy Smith, the chief shop steward. "All the clients are gone. We've been turning them away for several weeks."

But officials at the Health Department, which runs the facility through the Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration (APRA), said the center, on the D.C. General Hospital campus on Massachusetts Avenue in Southeast Washington, closed for renovations Aug. 10 and is expected to reopen.

Dena Iverson, the department's spokeswoman, said no services would be lost during the remodeling. But she offered no details on either the city's plan to replace the 80 beds at the center, where addicts could undergo detoxification for up to seven days, or the length of the renovation.

Michael Pickering, a special assistant for community affairs at Regional Addiction Prevention, which provides private treatment, said it is his understanding that clients are being provided with vouchers and referred to a private clinic during the renovation.

"I think this is well thought out. It wasn't a hasty decision," Pickering said. "We're impressed with the work and see no red flags."

The layoffs and renovation are occurring as Fenty prepares to privatize detoxification services in an effort to cut the budget. In 2006, a city-funded audit found that APRA duplicated other agency services and was not cost efficient.

According to a memorandum distributed by the senior deputy director of APRA, Tori Fernandez Whitney, the city will save $1.7 million by contracting services. Privatization would also allow the city to assess and refer more clients for treatment and admit more clients for detoxification, Whitney said.

But union officials and other critics said the city started laying off workers only two weeks after requesting bids for a contract to replace their services.

In a letter to the union, the Office of Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining said employees facing layoffs include public health analysts, vital statistics specialists, clerks, treatment program specialists, chemists and treatment counselors.

"Those actions are in direct contradiction with the city's own strategic plan around drug addiction and abuse," said Naomi Long, director of the DC Metro Project for the Drug Policy Alliance.

A task force appointed in 2003 by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams estimated that 60,000 District residents were addicted to alcohol and other drugs, a finding supported by the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Survey, which found that the District's rate of addiction -- about one in 10 -- is nearly double the U.S. rate. The task force estimated that the economic cost of alcohol and drug abuse was $1.2 billion a year.

In Whitney's June memo, the city said privatization would help matters by assessing and referring 2,000 additional clients for treatment each year and admitting about 500 more for detoxification.

Union representatives disagreed. "This is a train wreck waiting to happen," said John Walker, president of Local 383.

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