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Every few years the media report an epidemic of heroin overdose deaths; often after a celebrity like Phillip Seymour Hoffman dies to set off the spark. This time the spike in deaths—which is real– is being attributed to heroin mixed with fentanyl. Attention will fade but the deaths will continue. We wring our hands about overdoses, but do little to make effective treatment widely available. Our continuing refusal to prevent and treat addiction is a medical and social scandal.

Here are the policy changes I believe we must make to end this scandal:

1)       Complete the transition to individual health insurance with complete coverage for addiction treatment. The bulk of addiction treatment today is provided by small free standing programs that depend on contracts with public entities for treatment “slots” or individual out of pocket payment. The programs with contracts are responsive to their funders, not to the patients who may be filling a slot at the moment. The organization and funding of our treatment system works against developing a long term relationship between patient and provider that is key to successful long-term recovery. When a patient leaves, the treatment entity has no continuing contact with that person. Obamacare can cover almost all the people with addiction in the country if states, employers and insurers implement it properly. Sadly, some existing treatment programs are dragging their heels or opposed to getting their patients covered because they find it easier to bill the state or because they cannot meet the administrative and clinical requirements for accepting insurance payments.

2)      Integrate addiction, mental illness and medical treatment around individuals with severe addiction. Telling a patient who is unemployed, homeless, addicted and mentally ill to go someplace different for each service or to wait weeks for an appointment is malpractice because the providers know it will not happen. We should force consolidation of addiction treatment, mental illness and medical care providers to coordinate and take care of the most severely ill patients in one place. The few places where this kind of care is provided now get much better results for their patients.

3)      Increase insurance payment rates for addiction treatment to a level that meets providers’ costs, draws in new responsible providers, and pays for the required coordination. Very low Medicaid and private insurance payment rates create and perpetuate the shortage of quality treatment. Appropriate payment rates will attract higher quality providers.

4)      Reward longer stays in treatment and stop using providers that are unable to successfully retain patients in treatment long enough for it to be effective. Longer time in treatment, inpatient or outpatient, improves outcomes. Research shows that drug treatment for less than 90 days is generally not effective, but very few public or private insurance programs authorize that much treatment now. It is shocking that some treatment programs still throw a patient out if he relapses during treatment. Relapse is part of the disease and a signal for more treatment, not a reason to end it.

5)      Require hospitals, health centers, HMO’s and other primary providers, as a condition of their participation in Medicaid, Medicare, and  public employee health programs, to demonstrate that they diagnose all  patients with alcohol and drug disease and that they have a clinically sound program that  gets individuals the care they need. Today, most hospitals refuse to provide addiction treatment at any appropriate scale even though many of their patients would have better clinical outcomes if they got brief interventions or treatment.

6)      Stop the revolving door at detoxification programs. Current policy and reimbursement get the patient out the door as soon as he or she is “medically stable,” whether or not the person is connected or ready to enter real addiction treatment. The vast majority of people who leave detox without directly entering and staying in treatment quickly relapse. Many think they “failed” treatment but the truth is they never had any treatment, just detoxification.

7)      Stop arresting people for non-violent drug offenses. And stop putting people back in jail or prison for non-violent addiction related probation violations. Our current policies ruin thousands of young lives. Addiction is a disease, not a crime. Drug court programs are fine, but they touch only a tiny proportion of the people in the criminal justice system who need treatment.

David L. Rosenbloom, PhD, is Professor, Boston University School of Public Health and former Director of Join Together.

This feature was originally published on the BU Today website.


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