Health care law could overwhelm addiction services

April 17, 2013 11:22:00 PM

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By Carla K. Johnson

 

CHICAGO — It has been six decades since doctors concluded that addiction was a disease that could be treated, but today the condition still dwells on the fringes of the medical community. Only 1 cent of every health care dollar in the United States goes toward addiction, and few alcoholics and drug addicts receive treatment. One huge barrier, according to many experts, has been a lack of health insurance.

But that barrier crumbles in less than a year. In a major break with the past, 3 million to 5 million people with drug and alcohol problems — from homeless drug addicts to working moms who drink too much — suddenly will become eligible for insurance coverage under the new health care overhaul.

The number of people seeking treatment could double over current levels, depending on how many states decide to expand their Medicaid programs and how many addicts choose to take advantage of the new opportunity, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. The analysis compared federal data on the addiction rates in the 50 states, the capacity of treatment programs and the provisions of the new health law.

The surge in patients is expected to push a marginal part of the health care system out of church basements and into the mainstream of medical care. Already, the prospect of more paying patients has prompted private equity firms to increase their investments in addiction treatment companies, according to a market research firm. And families fighting the affliction are beginning to consider a new avenue for help.

“There is no illness currently being treated that will be more affected by the Affordable Care Act than addiction,” said Tom McLellan, CEO of the nonprofit Treatment Research Institute and President Barack Obama’s former deputy drug czar. “That’s because we have a system of treatment that was built for a time when they didn’t understand that addiction was an illness.”

But those eager for a new chance at sobriety may be surprised by the reality behind the promise. The system for treating substance abuse — now largely publicly funded and run by counselors with limited medical training — is small and already full to overflowing in many places. In more than two-thirds of the states, treatment clinics are already at or approaching 100 percent capacity.
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