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Monessen grills addiction clinic pair

| Thursday, May 15, 2014, 2:21 a.m.

Residents and council members at a Monessen Council meeting Wednesday peppered a doctor and his assistant with questions about a recently opened drug addiction treatment center.

With rumors swirling and calls reportedly pouring in to city officials, Dr. Robert Belluso and his vice president of operations, Deric Daugherty, claimed their practice at 1295 Grand Blvd. is not a methadone clinic.

Belluso opened New Leaf Recovery Services in January and moved it to Monessen last month, renting an office adjacent to a pain clinic operated by Dr. Victoria Sepesky.

Methadone clinics dispense drugs to people being weaned off heroin and other opioid drugs. Monessen has an ordinance forbidding such distribution centers.

Belluso and Daugherty insisted they have neither administered methadone nor plan to at the site. Their preferred treatment is Suboxone, a drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2002 to treat opioid dependence.

Mayor Lou Mavrakis and police Chief John Mandarino visited the clinic Wednesday and asked Belluso to attend the council meeting.

Belluso, who previously worked at a similar clinic in Pittsburgh, claimed the success rate with Suboxone treatment is 60 percent and that it's regulated more stringently than methadone.

“Methadone has been around for 30 years. It's outdated,” Belluso said. “Suboxone is very different. It alleviates the withdrawal symptoms and the cravings. But it's also a blocker, which means it prevents the medicine from being injected and abused, and it prevents other painkillers from having any effect. So that's why we use it. Taking more of Suboxone has no effect.”

Both were adamant that Suboxone and other controlled substances are not kept on site.

“We only write prescriptions,” Belluso said.

Daugherty, a Monongahela native, said he returned to the Mid-Mon Valley to be part of “the solution to a serious drug problem” by decreasing street demand for heroin and other narcotics.

Councilwoman Patty Bukowski was not convinced, and it led to verbal sparring with Daugherty.

“You're so close to our schools. … And we have two churches in back of you and one church a block away,” Bukowski said.

Bukowski said people do not want methadone clinics in their communities.

“What would make this any different?” she asked of Belluso's clinic.

“The most important thing is, methadone clinics and Suboxone clinics are not interchangeable,” Daugherty said.

Daugherty said the two are in separate drug classifications and involve different methods of treatment.

“Would you prefer to have a drug problem that is rampant and people who are addicted who are willing to do anything and everything in order to obtain (money) to feed an addiction or a program designed specifically to treat the problem at its source?” Daugherty asked.

Bukowski said she received several calls from people upset about the clinic.

“I don't have any problem with you trying to work with heroin addicts. That part I think is wonderful,” Bukowski said. “But you have to realize some people are going to be very upset about this in their community, and it seems like it came in real quiet and we didn't know anything about it.”

Solicitor Al Guido said Suboxone is not covered under the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Act, which establishes guidelines for land usage.

“I'm not aware of any laws that prohibit the establishment of this (clinic), which, in effect, takes all power away from council if you satisfy all other zoning laws,” Gaudio said.

He asked the men if they would ever administer or prescribe methadone.

Both denied ever being associated with methadone. They also denied rumors that groups of clients had been seen lingering outside the office.

Under questioning by Councilman Josh Retos, Belluso said the Monessen site operates three days a week and treats no more than 20 patients per day.

He said most clients are referred by courts and other physicians, including Sepesky.

Burning plan

Municipal fire Chief Chris Rhome discussed possible controlled burning of some tax-delinquent properties.

Rhome unveiled a detailed plan, including notification to and approval by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the state Fire Academy and neighbors of targeted properties.

“There is a lot of paperwork and testing required by the DEP prior to issuing a permit,” he said of controlled burns.

State-certified fire instructors must be present during training exercises, said Rhome, adding that's how they have to be worded, “as training exercises.”

He called controlled burns potentially beneficial, because they would provide on-the-job training for firefighters and for Douglas Education Center students who would perform post-burn work with heavy equipment.

“The groundwork has been laid, but this is not an overnight thing,” Rhome said.

Rhome said that if the city can burn in a controlled fashion, provide hands-on instruction for city firefighters and save taxpayers money in terms of demolition costs, “I feel quite confident that it's a win-win for everyone involved.”

Councilman John Nestor lauded Rhome for refusing to accept the $2,800 salary budgeted for the municipal fire chief post. Council appointed Rhome to the position in March.

Based on a request from resident Nancy Horvath, council reminded residents that anyone walking a dog who does not clean up after the animal can be fined.

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635.

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