WOONSOCKET, R.I. — The sun barely rises when John Hayes gets behind the wheel of a 27-foot-long RV and starts to rev up the engine.
Hayes sits on the edge of a mostly empty parking lot in Providence, Rhode Island, right outside of a methadone treatment clinic where, even at 5 a.m., patients start lining up.
But Hayes is not there to help people inside the brick-and-mortar clinic. Instead, he's taking the converted RV about 30 minutes north— to Woonsocket, Rhode Island. It's a community with some of the highest opioid use rates in the state.
"They’re just nice people that hit a bump," Hayes said.
It does not take long for patients to arrive.
One of the first people to arrive is Raul Rodriquez. Addicted to drugs for more than 20 years, Rodriquez use to have to travel 30 minutes to Providence to receive the methadone treatment he needs to get better.
But now, this first-in-the-nation mobile methadone clinic is bringing the medicine to him.
"It's wonderful. I live around the corner, you don't have to drive. It's right here," he said.
Methadone is a medication used to help people reduce or quit their use of heroin or other drugs. By increasing ease and access, the mobile medical unit hopes to keep patients on the right path.
"Substance use disorder is just a disease of the brain," said Linda Hurley, president of CODAC Behavioral Health, which owns and operates the mobile unit.
Last month, CODAC received approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to dispense methadone at mobile treatment sites. Aside from the convenience, it's a more cost-effective way for treatment centers to operate. Instead of $4 million for a new building, CODAC can spend closer to $400,000 to renovate an RV.
"This is a highly effective, efficient and kind way to provide care to individuals that are dying," Hurley said.
This type of innovative methadone treatment couldn't come at a more critical American juncture. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 107,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2021. An estimated 75 percent of those deaths involved an opioid but only 18 percent of people with an opioid use disorder received medication as treatment.
"With a mobile unit, we go to individuals and see them when they can be seen, and that’s really important," Hurley noted.
There's another layer to all of this. It's keeping patients from having to go to a traditional doctor's office setting, which comes with its own set of stigmas.
As a physician specializing in addiction medicine, the mobile medical unit is a new frontier for Dr. Cara Zimmerman.
"This is definitely meeting someone where they're at," Dr. Zimmerman said.
Not only can she offer patients methadone treatment, but she can also help with wound care or write a prescription.
"This is more we're here; we're coming to you on your schedule and whatever, as much or as little as you need," she added.
Communities across the country are visiting the mobile clinic to see what's working as more treatment centers apply for DEA approval to get other mobile methadone clinics rolling nationwide.
"Most of them are just regular people who are coming in early to go to work. They're coming in before their day starts, so they can get their methadone and live a life," Hayes said.