Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered moderate Republicans the sweetener he thought would deliver their votes for the GOP health care bill — $45 billion to combat opioid abuse. But it wasn’t sufficient. “I’m not there yet,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said Thursday, suggesting the money would have to be paired with more generous Medicaid provisions to get her support.
Capito and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio had asked for $45 billion over 10 years to help address the substance abuse epidemic, which has hit their states particularly hard. The original Senate bill contained only $2 billion in opioid money for 2018, while rolling back Obamacare’s expanded Medicaid program that had paid for drug treatment and other health needs for an estimated 200,000 people with opioid abuse problems.
Addiction experts and others across the political spectrum say that boosting the current bill’s $2 billion for substance abuse services is like applying a Band-Aid to a gunshot wound. Throwing a pile of cash at addiction won’t make it go away, say critics. It’s a complex, lifelong, medical problem that requires regular health care.
Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich said of spending money on opioids without giving people ongoing health care.
The debate is particularly vexing for GOP leaders since many of the states hardest hit by opioids, including West Virginia, Ohio and Maine, went for Trump and are also home to a group of moderate senators still on the fence about the repeal bill.
Portman called the increase in opioid funding “progress” that would help save lives. “But there are also a lot of missing parts,” he said of the Senate legislation.
People struggling with addiction need regular access to the health system so they can be treated for the conditions that often lead to, or develop due to their substance abuse — among them, chronic pain, untreated broken bones, traumatic brain injury, dental problems, diabetes, breathing conditions, and heart and liver disease, said Lori Criss, associate director of the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health and Family Services Providers.
State-specific opioid grants won’t cover those things and without such care, abusers are unlikely to remain stable and employable, Criss said.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), whose state has had a devastating problem with opioid addiction, said that it’s absurd to think that a “siloed small amount of money” for opioid treatment can work without an integrated health system.
The Senate bill yanked this week by leaders would make $772 billion in cuts to Medicaid over 10 years, including the rollback of the federal government’s funding of Obamacare’s expanded Medicaid eligibility — through which an estimated 1.3 million people have gotten mental health care and substance abuse coverage.
The bill would also repeal an Obamacare requirement that Medicaid expansion must cover mental health and substance abuse. It also allows states to apply for waivers so they do not have to require coverage of substance abuse treatment.
Harvard health economist Richard Frank, an HHS official under former President Barack Obama, estimates that approximately 2.8 million Americans with substance use problems — of whom about 222,000 have an opioid disorder — would lose some or all of their insurance coverage if Republicans repeal Obamacare and its behavioral health provisions.
Both Republican and Democratic members of the president’s opioid commission, including panel chairman New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, acknowledge that Obamacare’s expanded Medicaid has been a boon to getting drug abusers into treatment.
Christie said in his January 2017 State of the State address.
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat on the opioid panel, says he has no doubt the bill would undercut efforts to stem the opioid crisis.
Republican John Giles, the mayor of conservative Mesa, Ariz., said Wednesday that the repeal bill might save money for the federal government but it would almost certainly boost costs to state and local governments.
Frank estimates that states would need about $183 billion over 10 years to successfully tackle the opioid crisis — about four times the amount that Portman and Capito have sought.
said Michael Botticelli, head of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control policy under Obama.
The type of treatment that could be financed through state grants would also be far different than what patients get now, many experts said.
Most of the patients receiving access to drugs that help treat addiction currently get them through private doctors’ offices — where they are more likely to receive treatment for underlying diseases like depression, or for diseases like HIV that sometimes occur as a result of their addiction.
That’s because federal grants for behavioral treatment typically go to specific public providers or clinics that address addiction, many of which lack the capacity to treat all those in need or to offer broad health services.
Many of those do not follow the evidence-based medical practices that addiction professionals recommend, Kennedy said.
For example, a lot of money goes to facilities offering “12-step programs,” best known for treating alcoholics, which don’t offer medication to treat opioid addiction or cognitive behavioral therapy, he said. And they don’t treat patients associated ailments like depression and bipolar disorder.
The reason the country’s relapse rate is so high is “because the current system doesn’t work,” Kennedy said.
Finally, many health policy experts say the country can’t count on the opioid epidemic being over when the Senate’s grant money runs out.
said Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University.
Jennifer Haberkorn and Brianna Ehley contributed to this report.