The main U.S. producer of methadone, the synthetic narcotic used to treat heroin addicts, is doubling its prices for the drug -- a move federal officials warn could result in thousands of inner-city drug abusers being denied access to treatment programs.

The price hike, announced recently by the Mallinckrodt Specialty Chemicals Co. of St. Louis, has raised concerns among Bush administration drug policy officials and prompted some drug treatment administrators to accuse Mallinckrodt of exploiting its dominant market position to engage in "drug war price gouging."

"This could eat up millions of dollars in new treatment money," charged Herb Kleber, deputy national drug control policy director for demand reduction. "I am worried about this. . . . An increase of this magnitude could have a major impact on the number of patients that could be treated."

About 85,000 of the nation's 500,000 heroin abusers are being treated with methadone -- a drug that blocks the body's craving for heroin. Over the next few years, Kleber said, the administration had hoped to expand "substantially" that number, in part because of fears of a new heroin resurgence fueled by a flood of unusually pure Asian heroin that has started to show up in some East Coast cities.

The methadone expansion is also a key part of the government's program for curbing the spread of AIDS. Intravaneous drug use is now the primary means for transmitting the disease, and some federal health officials have argued that easier access to methadone may be the most cost-effective means of dealing with that problem.

But both goals could be hindered as a result of Mallinckrodt's price increase, officials said. Mallinckrodt -- a division of the IMCERA Group Inc., a conglomerate based in Northbrook, Ill., that reported $1.4 billion in sales last year -- is estimated to supply, either directly or indirectly, 80 to 90 percent of the 4,400 pounds of methadone used in drug treatment clinics each year, according to several treatment officials.

Methadone is generally taken by patients either in tablet form or as a cherry-flavored liquid dissolved in orange juice or some other drink.

Last month, citing what it called higher costs for "raw materials, manufacturing and administration expenses," Mallinckrodt informed its customers that it was doubling the price for its cherry-flavored liquid methadone, trade-named Methadose, from $37 per quart to $74. One quart provides an average of 190 daily doses of methadone.

In addition, the company announced an 80 percent increase in the price of methadone powder, which is sold to other pharmaceutical firms and used to make methadone tablets, from $2,100 for a standard 500-gram (1.1-pound) bottle to $3,800. A 500-gram bottle provides about 9,000 standard daily doses of methadone, or a two-week supply for a clinic treating 650 patients.

Mallinckrodt spokesman Keith Pickett said in an interview he would not specify any of the higher raw-material or manufacturing costs that prompted the company to raise its prices, calling such information, including the identity of the ingredients in its formula, "proprietary." But Pickett said that in addition to higher costs, the price increase was instituted to provide additional funds to invest in research and development, new product lines and manufacturing equipment. "That would be responding to the growing national interest in drug abuse and treatment," Pickett said.

Pickett also said that the company, which had intended to make the price increases effective Aug. 15, has agreed to phase them in in three steps by March 1. He said the decision to phase in the increases was made in response to complaints from clinics. "It was our understanding that this was an awful big amount to occur at one time," he said.

But treatment administrators say the phase-in does little to cushion the ultimate blow. "This is going to have an incredible impact," said Gerald G. DeAngelis, president of Health Care Delivery Services, which operates two publicly funded clinics in the Los Angeles area that treat about 500 methadone patients.

"We calculate that we will have to reduce our patient population by 17 percent just to pay for methadone," DeAngelis said. "We're going to be paying more for methadone and treating less people. . . . The whole thing seems to be going against the national interest in the area of drug abuse."

John A. Jackson Jr., head of the District's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services Administration, called the price increases "unbelievable." He said the higher prices would have a "significant impact," though yet unmeasurable, on the District's drug abuse program. About 3,000 drug abusers are taking methadone at District treatment centers.

Most methadone programs are publicly funded, usually through federal block grants to the states. "What they {Mallinckrodt officials} are really seeking is an indirect subsidy from federal and state governments who are trying to put more money into the treatment system," said Mark Parrino, president of the Northeast Regional Methadone Treatment Coalition in New York, which represents about 270 methadone treatment programs.

"Many of these {treatment} programs are functioning very close to the wire," Parrino added. "What they are going to be compelled to do is decrease other program services and not be able to hire staff. . . . I've had one administrator tell me, 'I don't know if I can continue to operate.' "

DeAngelis estimates his clinic spends slightly less than $100 per patient per year on methadone and that his costs will double to more than $90,000. Treatment officials estimate that about $8 million a year is being spent on methadone now. That likely would reach $16 million if the price increases stick.

However, because there are a number of variables, such as the number of patients and alternative suppliers, officials said it is difficult to assess the precise impact.

At least one smaller firm, Ganes Chemical Co. in New Jersey, also makes methadone. But a company spokesman last week refused to say how much the firm produces or how much it might increase its production, citing "security" concerns.

Moreover, a substantial part of Mallinckrodt's production of powder -- the exact amount is unknown -- is sold to another supplier, Eli Lilly & Co., which then manufactures methadone diskettes or tablets that are sold to clinics. What is unknown at this point, federal officials said, is whether Lilly will increase its prices for tablets commensurate with Mallinckrodt's boost in the price of methadone powder.

"We do not speculate about possible price changes," said Clark Kaufman, a spokesman for Lilly. But he added: "We continue to review all costs associated with marketing each of our products."