Opioid Commission Unveils Blueprint To Fight Crisis, But Passes Funding Buck To Congress


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The group’s 56 recommendations include tightening prescription practices and expanding drug courts, prevention efforts, treatment access and law enforcement tactics.

President Trump’s bipartisan commission on the opioid crisis made dozens of final recommendations on Wednesday to combat a deadly addiction epidemic, ranging from creating more drug courts to vastly expanding access to medications that treat addiction, including in jails.

The commissioners did not specify how much money should be spent to carry out their suggestions, but they pressed Congress to “appropriate sufficient funds” in response to Mr. Trump’s declaration last week of a public health emergency.

The 56 recommendations — which covered opioid prescribing practices, prevention, treatment, law enforcement tactics and funding mechanisms — did not so much advocate a new approach as expanding strategies already being used.

Reaction from treatment advocates was mixed, with many expressing frustration that the commission had not called for a specific level of funding. Chuck Ingoglia, a senior vice president at the National Council for Behavioral Health, which represents treatment providers, said that his group agreed with many of the recommendations, but that the report “starves the country for the real resources it needs to save American lives.”

Although the commission did not put a dollar amount on its recommendations, it had specific ideas for how federal money should be funneled to states. Its top recommendation was to streamline “fragmented” federal funds for addiction prevention and treatment into block grants that would require each state to file only a single application instead of seeking grants from dozens of programs scattered across various agencies.

The commission also appealed to the Trump administration to track more carefully the huge array of interdiction, prevention and treatment programs it is funding and to make sure they are working. “We are operating blindly today,” its report said.

Regina LaBelle, who was chief of staff in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Barack Obama, said the recommendations recognized “the importance of proper and appropriate treatments” for addiction, particularly medications that help people avoid cravings and symptoms of withdrawal. But, she added, “There needs to be more funding for this.”

The head of the commission, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, suggested in a television interview Sunday that Mr. Trump would soon ask Congress to allocate far more money for fighting the nation’s addiction problem. “I would say that you’re going to see this president initially ask for billions of dollars to deal with this,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

The White House issued a statement thanking the commission and saying it would review the recommendations.

It is hard to determine how much money is truly needed. When Senate Republicans added $45 billion in addiction treatment funds to an Obamacare repeal bill that ultimately failed, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican, said that amount was akin to “spitting in the ocean.”

Richard Frank, a health economics professor at Harvard Medical School who worked in the Obama administration, estimated that it could cost roughly $10 billion a year to provide medication and counseling to everyone with opioid use disorder who is not already in treatment. Treating opioid-dependent newborns, meeting the needs of children in foster care because of their parents’ addiction and treating hepatitis C and other illnesses common among opioid addicts would cost “many billions more,” Mr. Frank said.

Mr. Frank also cautioned that block grants would not work if the administration decided to include federal Medicaid funding for addiction treatment in them. “When one starts to carve out certain services as grants, as opposed to insurance funding, one undermines the insurance,” he said. “It is a method of killing Medicaid with 1,000 nicks.”

Some of the commission’s other recommendations included making it easier for states to share data from prescription drug monitoring programs, which are electronic databases that track opioid prescriptions, and requiring more doctors to check the databases for signs of “doctor shopping” before giving a patient opioids.

The commission encouraged the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to review policies that it claimed discouraged hospitals and doctors from prescribing alternatives to opioids, especially after surgery. According to the commission’s report, C.M.S. pays a flat, “bundled” payment to hospitals after patients undergo surgery, which includes treatment for pain. Because they get a flat fee, hospitals are encouraged to use cheap products – and most opioid medications are generic and inexpensive.

“Purchasing and administering a non-opioid medication in the operating room increases the hospital’s expenses without a corresponding increase in reimbursement payment,” the report said.

More broadly, the report said the federal government as well as private insurers should do a better job of covering a range of pain-management and treatment services, such as non-opioid medicationsphysical therapy and counseling. And it recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies eliminate any reimbursement policies that limit access to addiction medications and other types of treatment, including prior authorization requirements and policies that require patients to try and fail with one kind treatment before getting access to another.

One prevention measure the commission did not embrace is expanding syringe exchange programs, which public health experts say save money and lives by reducing the spread of H.I.V. and hepatitis C with contaminated syringes.

“I was hoping to see that in this report,” Ms. LaBelle said.

The commission’s members – Mr. Christie, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican; Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat; Pam Bondi, the Republican attorney general of Florida; Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island and Bertha Madras, a Harvard professor – all voted for the final recommendations, which came about a month later than expected.

His voice quaking with emotion, Mr. Kennedy said during the commission’s meeting Wednesday that Congress needed to appropriate sufficient funds for the initiative, suggesting at least $10 billion.

”This town doesn’t react unless it hears from real people“ who will vote in the next election, he said, nodding to guests who had testified about their families’ searing experiences with addiction, stigma, lack of treatment options and the refusal of insurance companies to cover treatment.

Mr. Kennedy also noted that insurance coverage is crucial to fighting addiction; in another commission meeting earlier this year, he took Republicans to task for working to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid.

 

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