Residents and those from the business community along South Tacoma Way came to a public hearing Friday, March 30, to give public testimony to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery in regards to an application by Northwest Integrated Health to place an opioid treatment program at 3727 South Tacoma Way, at the intersection of 37th Street and South Tacoma Way in a building formerly occupied by Key Bank.
A majority of those attending demanded that they be able to listen to Dr. Asif Khan, the owner and medical director of Northwest Integrated Health, share background on the mission, vision, and operations protocols the program. At first DSHS was hesitant to allow it to happen, citing that RCW does not specifically allow it and that the intent of the public hearing was to only take public testimony, not to also educate the public about the applicant, which could have the appearance of showing favoritism to the applicant.
However, Tacoma City Councilmembers Keith Blocker, Lillian Hunter, and Conor McCarthy, all in attendance, said it would be best to allow the public to hear from Dr. Khan, who was in attendance that evening.
Khan, in his explanation, told those attending that his program is the first to provide a full-comprehensive treatment model to those battling opioid addiction, which comprises substance-use disorder counseling, mental health counseling services, medication-assisted therapies, and case management services. He said that addiction is a disease that can be treated. And contrary to widespread belief, he said crime actually goes down when a treatment program comes to an area.
Many of those testifying expressed the opinion that the OTP site should not be located at the proposed site. Many said they understood the significant need for these types of services, but that it had no place in their neighborhood and would ultimately be a negative toward generating positive gains in sales tax revenues, property values, and maintaining a sense of safety for those living and working in the area.
Valerie Fyalka-Munoz, a business person associated with Michael’s Plaza, said the concentration of retail there generates strong sales taxes to the city, while at the same time maintenance crews are picking up needles and feces on the premises of the Plaza. The proposed OTP site, she said, would only add to the problem.
“The general public will not feel safe when shopping in the center,” Fyalka-Munoz said. “Where (the OTP site) is being proposed is unacceptable.”
Marlen Steward, a mother of two teenagers, expressed sympathy for those afflicted by addiction.
“It breaks your heart to see these people addicted,” she said. “But it’s a larger discrimination to bring these treatment centers close to where our families and kids live. It’s not okay.”
In favor of the proposed OTP site was Dawn Wood, who said she agrees with Dr. Khan that addiction is a disease. She personally knows loved ones who have walked that path of addiction.
“I’m more worried about the drug dealers, not the drug addicts,” she said.
Dr. Khan explained that patients at the center would not be loitering outside the building and committing crimes and doing drugs. Dr. Khan explained that NIH enforces a strict no-loitering policy, and in fact, patients arrive at his centers by bus, come in to take their dose of medication, and then leave on the bus back to their home, quicker, he said, than it takes to get your morning cup of coffee at your favorite coffee shop.
Ed Tuck III, a business owner adjacent to where the site is proposed, said Dr. Khan personally came into his building to explain his intention.
“I thought that was sincere,” Tuck said. “I think there should be some conditional uses applied to the site, but I think personally Dr. Khan will work with business owners. I think we can have a positive relationship, where it doesn’t have to be a negative.”
Still another testimony was given by Councilmember McCarthy, at-large Position 7, who, earlier this year, served on a regional task force to stem the rise of the overdose epidemic.
“There has been more use of heroin and opioids in the area,” he said. “The best news is it’s treatable. Opioids know no demographic—it’s rural, rich, and poor.”
McCarthy acknowledged the rising tide of hostile violence in South Tacoma. This proposed OTP site is one part of the solution.
“I do believe the city needs to listen to you,” McCarthy said to the audience. “All your concerns are legitimate. I am here as a city representative to hear your concerns.”
Jessica Blose, the Washington state opioid treatment authority, said DBHR thought Friday night’s public hearing was successful in its intent to record testimony, and that Tacoma City Council members present was appreciated.
“A partnership between Northwest Integrated Health and the City of Tacoma is integral to mutual goals of helping to educate the community on both opioid treatment programs and medication-assisted therapy for opioid-use disorders,” Blose said. “DBHR will soon announce a second public hearing regarding Northwest Integrated Health at a yet-to-be determined date and location.”