Physician set to open Urbana clinic for heroin addicts

URBANA – John Peterson usually knows long before police if there's bad heroin on the streets.

The veteran doctor has worked at a methadone clinic in Downers Grove for seven years and is just weeks away from getting a slightly different, less-regulated type of opiate-recovery clinic running in his hometown.

"We've been attempting to open a methadone clinic (in Urbana) for seven years. There has been a lot of state, federal and local opposition. We think we're breaking through," said Peterson, who's also worked part-time as an emergency-room physician at Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana since 1994.

Before his medical career, Peterson was better known as one of the county's more active Democrats, serving on the Urbana City Council from 1973 to 1985. Narrowly defeated for Urbana mayor in 1985, he also served as chairman of the Champaign-Urbana Cable TV Commission in the mid-1980s.

And to help support his wife, Joanne Chester, and their three children, he ran a car-repair business, focusing on Volkswagens, Porsches and Volvos.

Now 61, Peterson still tinkers with cars, but his main interest is in fixing humans who have become hopelessly addicted to opiates, most commonly heroin.

"We're targeting November to offer Suboxone. It's a synthetic long-acting opiate with many of the properties of methadone, intended to eliminate opiate withdrawal," Peterson said.

The "we" he's referring to is primarily himself, working under the business name of Recovery Options at 217 N. Broadway Ave., U. He's also aided by the staff from Alcohol and Chemical Evaluation Services, a counseling service for recovering addicts in the same building.

The people he intends to serve will pay by insurance or out of pocket. There will be no public funding. Peterson said he's bankrolling the start-up costs.

"I've got a lot of money invested in this. I'm an old man," he said with a laugh. "But fortunately, I'm healthy."

Unfortunately, there are so many people addicted to heroin and other opiates that Peterson is confident he won't need to advertise.

"It's a myth this (heroin) is a street drug. It's all over society," he said, adding the first person he saw when he started in Downers Grove seven years ago was a corporate vice president in charge of a $400 million account. She had been on methadone for 20 years.

"About 10 percent of our patients are insured. Forty percent of the men I serve are construction workers. The women are largely in office jobs and waitresses. We have all the way up to investment bankers," he said.

The concept behind Suboxone and methadone is simple from a drug viewpoint, Peterson said.

"It blocks the effects of acute opiates. You're not in pain. You don't get high when you use. You're entirely functional," he said, likening it to the effect of an anti-depressant. "It takes away the struggle.

"It's kind of an extinction principle. Since you're no longer getting high, you quit doing it," he explained.

Withdrawal from opiate addiction can be exceedingly unpleasant, with pain, vomiting and diarrhea.

Suboxone and methadone are taken orally, but the main difference is that Suboxone can be prescribed for at-home use. Methadone must be dispensed to the patient at the clinic. Methadone, the cheaper of the two, is more highly regulated by state and federal officials.

Federal regulations limit Peterson, as a licensed doctor, to treat 100 patients with methadone. He already has about 40 at his Downers Grove clinic.

"That limitation is waived if Suboxone is offered out of a methadone clinic," he said.

By the middle of next year, Peterson hopes to be able to offer methadone at the Urbana clinic.

"I'm making it clear I'm not opening a methadone clinic now. But that will happen over the next several months. Administratively, that's a bigger project," he said, explaining the clinic will have to be certified by an accredited authority. "I know what I need to do to meet those requirements. I'll transition into methadone as we get those requirements met."

To start someone on Suboxone and transition to methadone is much less complicated than going the other way, he said.

Peterson said although the clinic will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 to noon on Saturdays, he'll be there only on Mondays, Tuesdays and some Thursdays.

"I do have other things I'm doing," he said, adding he bicycles 75 miles per week for fun when he's not working.

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