No Problem Here: Pols Shun Drug Center in Bronx Opioid OD Hotspot

The potential future site of the disputed drug-treatment clinic at 5622 Broadway in Kingsbridge, The Bronx. Photo: Ese Olumhense/THE CITY

Two Bronx lawmakers petitioning the state to deny a license to a planned upscale drug treatment center in Kingsbridge argue the neighborhood doesn’t have an opioid problem — a claim at odds with city statistics on fatal overdoses.

This story was originally published on April 28, 2019 by THE CITY.

The private outpatient facility, slated to include yoga sessions and personal trainers, would be “a great hindrance to a community not at the center of this epidemic,” Democratic Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz and Councilmember Andrew Cohen wrote in an April 13 letter obtained by THE CITY.

“It is concerning to know that this location could potentially introduce a problem to a community where there isn’t one,” they said in the note to state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Arlene Gonzalez-Sanchez.

Yet statistics compiled by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene show the Riverdale/Kingsbridge area ranked 15th worst out of the city’s 42 health districts in its rate of fatal opioid overdoses in 2017, with 18.3 deaths for every 100,000 residents.

And neighborhoods just to the east, across the Major Deegan Expressway, logged the city’s fifth-worst opioid fatality rate in the city that year, with 31.2 deaths per 100,000 residents in the zip codes covering Norwood, Bronx Park and Belmont. Those areas recorded 37.1 deaths per 100,000 for all fatal drug overdoses that year.

A No-Medicaid Zone

Operators of the clinic, named Ekawa — “awake” backwards —  have signed a 10-year lease on a second-floor space in a former Conway’s discount store on Broadway and 232nd Street.

The facility will only take private insurance, said Ekawa lobbyist Jeff Klein, who formerly represented the area in the state Senate and now works for Mercury Public Affairs, following his defeat in November’s election. Ekawa will not accept Medicaid, Klein said.

Ekawa plans to offer “fantastic amenities” like yoga, meditation, group therapy and personal trainers in a spa-like facility open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays, alongside both medication-free and medication-assisted treatment for addiction, such as buprenorphine and methadone.A rendering of the proposed Ekawa treatment clinic. Photo: Courtesy ofJeff Klein/Mercury Public Affairs

Many treatment professionals consider medication-assisted therapies vital against addictions notoriously hard to kick. “Bupe pretty much saved my life,” said Shantae Owens, a Highbridge resident who used to use heroin and now works at a harm reduction center on the Lower East Side.

Owens slammed as baseless the notion that opioid addiction is only some other neighborhoods’ problem.

“People need to really wake up,” he said. “Where do they think these people were? Where do they think we were? We were the community, we were already in the community.

“We’ve always been in your backyard, I’m still in the backyard. And now I’m trying to clean up the backyard.”

Dinowitz — who used to chair the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Alcoholism and Drug abuse — told THE CITY he is generally supportive of drug treatment centers. But he expressed “strong reservations” about putting the clinic on a bustling commercial strip.

“It’s more sensible to locate it in an area where it would impact fewer people,” Dinowitz said.

A Luxury Experience

In their letter demanding the state deny Ekawa a license, Dinowitz and Cohen raised another, seemingly contradictory, objection — that the center would exclude local low-income residents in need.

“The proposed center is set to open for private insurances only while being placed in a community where a large number of the population are Medicaid recipients,” they wrote. “[I]t has no intention of serving the community where it will be operating.”

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, another Democrat who represents the area, told THE CITY he shares that concern.

“In my opinion, drug treatment facilities, such as Ekawa, are primarily focused on profits rather than providing potentially life-saving services to very vulnerable populations,” he said. “The Bronx has a large Medicaid population, and a company that seeks to help people overcome substance addiction should not be excluding a portion of the neighborhood they seek to settle in.”

Ekawa Group, LLC was incorporated in November under the name of an old hand in Bronx politics: Francisco Lugovina, who chaired the county Democratic party in the 1980s until stepping aside amid scrutiny of his contracts with the city and with Cablevision as it sought exclusive rights to provide cable service to the Bronx. Lugovina did not respond to messages left by THE CITY.

Lugovina last year sought to open substance abuse treatment center in Westchester, but the Mount Pleasant town board declined to authorize its operation, according to the town supervisor’s office. The Bronx facility would be Ekawa’s first.

“People need (the clinic),” said Angel Torres, who’s worked in the area for 18 years.

“People need (the clinic),” said Angel Torres, who’s worked in the area for 18 years. Photo: Ese Olumhenses/THE CITY

Ekawa is in the process of filling out an application to become an OASAS-licensed treatment provider, Klein told THE CITY, adding that Lugovina is not involved in the company. While Klein is barred from lobbying members of the Legislature for two years, he can still lobby the governor’s office, state agencies and local New York City representatives.

That includes Community Board 8, where Klein — just months ago one of the mightiest men in Albany under a power-sharing agreement — made the case for the treatment clinic last month to skeptical locals, who expressed concerns about safety, public nuisances, privacy, parking and drug dealing.

‘If Not Here, Then Where’

The drug-treatment clinic proposal does have its local supporters.

“People need it,” said Angel Torres, who has sold fruits and vegetables in the area for 18 years. “People need some help.”

Others in the business community were wary of a new neighbor on a lively commercial strip.

“My moral standpoint and my business standpoint are kind of in two different places,” said Nick Koury, co-owner of Build N Box, a fitness center across the street from the site. “It’s great for people who need help with their drug habits, but I’m not sure of the effect all of it is going to have on business.”

Advocates for people fighting addiction urge the north Bronx to set any fears aside.

“There’s always that pushback, that we don’t need more of those in our neighborhood, when really, we need to do everything we can to keep people alive,” said Jasmine Budnella, drug policy coordinator at VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group for low-income New Yorkers affected by drugs, health issues and homelessness.

“If not here,” she said, “then where is the best location?”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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