Investing in addiction treatment is good policy

Policymakers are slowly coming to terms with what addiction experts have known for some time.  The United States is in the midst of a heroin and prescription drug epidemic, one that is wreaking havoc in small towns and big cities alike. More than 100 people die in this country every day as a result of a drug overdose.  In fact, deaths from drug overdoses have increased five-fold since 1980, outnumbering deaths from car crashes for the first time in U.S. history.

We all know that addiction is an equal opportunity disease, one that touches every family in some way.  More than 20 million Americans are living with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. 

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Sadly, there are many obstacles to receiving treatment beyond simply the will to seek it out.   For millions of people, quality treatment is simply not available. Even before the “Great Recession,” getting treatment was out of reach for many Americans.  Not all insurance plans covered treatment services, leaving people to cover the costs out of pocket.  Before the passage of legislation to ensure parity, many plans offered only minimal coverage – leaving people with few options.  Further, for the millions of Americans with no insurance, government-funded programs were already stretched thin and state and federal budget cuts in recent years have further limited the number of people they can serve. 

Progress has been made in recent years.  Treatment is a core benefit covered in the Affordable Care Act and as more people receive insurance coverage in the coming years, one significant hurdle to receiving treatment will be addressed.  The historic Excellence in Mental Health Act was just signed into law and it will make mental health services, including addiction treatment, available for an estimated 240,000 additional people.

But other challenges remain.  There simply are not enough treatment providers to meet the current need, let alone the increased demand that may be coming.  After years of budget cuts, the safety net of services that so many Americans depend on is severely weakened.  It is time to rebuild that safety net, before the situation gets any worse.  

Good people disagree on how best to spend taxpayer dollars, especially when it comes to government spending for social services.  But when it comes to addiction treatment, the answer seems clear.  Untreated addictions are estimated to cost $365 billion every year in terms of related health care costs, lost work productivity and crime. Investing in treatment is not only good health policy; it is good fiscal policy.

While there is no easy solution when it comes to treating addictions, policymakers in Washington have some good options under consideration.  Advocates for expanding addiction treatment have asked the president and Congress to increase funding for the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant Program.  After years of budget cuts, this essential program has received additional funding in the past two budgets, which has supported many important initiatives including employment and housing assistance, case management, school-based support services, family and parenting education, and peer support. Yet, with many states still experiencing budget challenges, it is essential that Washington find a way to increase funding to meet the growing demand for addiction treatment services.

Just as this nation launched national campaigns to promote seat-belts and reduce smoking, we need a sustained, comprehensive effort to make treatment available to all who need it.   I urge policymakers in Washington to support the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant Program.  Let’s turn the tide together.  

Rosenberg is president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health.

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