A Nashville-based startup has taken over a troubled chain of opioid treatment centers in East Tennessee with visions of expanding throughout the region. And job number one is rehabbing the old company's image.
Last year, Watauga Recovery Centers were raided by the Drug Enforcement Agency after a nurse practitioner was busted for illegally distributing controlled substances. They specialized in prescribing an opioid addiction treatment drug called buprenorphine, which also happens to be one of the most illegally obtained prescription drugs in the state and has a high street value.
Watauga founder Tom Reach has not been indicted and claims no wrongdoing, but the legal troubles did force the company into bankruptcy.
In November, a new Nashville firm bought the company out of bankruptcy for $3 million, according to court documents. And that's when Angelee Murray started mending fences in the community.
"First and foremost, we are out there in the open," she says. "We say, 'come one, come all. Come into our center. Look at what we do.' We are not hiding anything."
The company has rebranded as ReVIDA. But Murray says it's more than a name change. For one, they've begun accepting insurance instead of just cash payments, and they supply many of their 2,000 patients with lock boxes to keep their buprenorphine safe from family or friends who are abusing drugs.
"We do not write a new prescription for stolen medication," Murray says.
ReVIDA has met with public officials and joined local chambers of commerce. The company has already been part of a state task force exploring whether nurse practitioners should be able to prescribe buprenorphine.
Perhaps most importantly, they've established relationships with law enforcement.
"We got on board with the Narcan," Hamblen County Sheriff Esco Jarnagin says. "They came down and trained my officers."
ReVIDA staffers taught deputies how to use the overdose reversal drug.
Jarnagin says he's been skeptical of companies like ReVIDA that provide outpatient medication-assisted treatment, viewing it as simply trading one opioid for another. But he's desperate for any kind of help in his mountainous community, which has been plagued with overdose fatalities in recent years.
"I'm grasping for straws," he says. "At least they are making an effort to try and do something."
ReVIDA operates seven clinics in East Tennessee and southwest Virginia with plans to expand to Middle Tennessee and beyond in the coming years.
The company has hired new medical directors, and CEO Lee Dilworth, a health care attorney and investor from Nashville, says some regulatory changes have made it possible to professionalize so-called "Suboxone clinics." The federal government has increased the number of patients each doctor can treat with buprenorphine from 100 to 275, so it no longer has to be a side job for them.
"Now we can hire physicians...and this is all they do. They work for a salary, and we get elevated care," Dilworth says. "That's the way the industry needs to go."
Health care investors have become increasingly interested in outpatient medication-assisted treatment. Franklin-based Acadia is one of the largest players in the growing sector, and ReVIDA's chief operating officer was previously with Acadia.
Dilworth says the industry could benefit from consolidation in order to professionalize a sector that has often been characterized by its bad actors. He sees vast unmet needs, citing overdose fatalities that continue to rise in much of the country.
"If people want to stigmatize us, they can do that," Dilworth says. "If we're going to take some reputational risk over stigma, personally, I'm fine with that."