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Another Voice: Congress must fund opioid treatment

By Gale Burstein

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 300,000 Americans have lost their lives to opioid overdoses from 2000 to 2015. In Erie County, 1,048 deaths have been attributed to opioid-related overdoses since 2009. The Erie County Department of Health sees the extent of the epidemic – across all ages, races, gender, economic background and locale. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem; people who are addicted to opioids need treatment. This epidemic continues to devastate families and overwhelm the health care system across the country.

Unfortunately, support for appropriate treatment options has not been universal. Current proposals in Congress are extremely concerning to all affected by this crisis. Medicaid, a major payer for addiction treatment, is at risk because millions of low-income Americans would become ineligible for the program. One analysis suggests current congressional proposals would shift an estimated $370 billion in Medicaid costs from the federal government to states over the next 10 years. States would be forced to cut programs or make up the difference in lost funding.

These changes are part of Congress’ plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA has been a vital tool for expanding access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment. Researchers at Harvard and New York University estimate that ACA repeal means over   1.2 million people with serious mental disorders and 2.8 million Americans with substance use disorders, of whom 222,000 have an opioid disorder, would lose some or all of their insurance coverage.  If the replacement plan makes addiction and mental health insurance coverage less affordable, families will not only be personally devastated when a loved one is grappling with opioid addiction but may also face financial devastation.

Medicaid cuts of this magnitude and ACA repeal would severely hamper the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force’s efforts. Erie County is committed to turning the tide of this epidemic. We continue our efforts to educate health care providers, distribute naloxone and help facilitate coordination of efforts throughout Erie County. But Medicaid and health insurance coverage through the ACA is essential to get families help and support, and their loved ones into treatment. Now is not the time to reduce our efforts by endangering the essential tools we need to make treatment possible.

We urge Congress to reject any Medicaid and ACA proposals that would create barriers for individuals with opioid dependence to access necessary treatment. Erie County remains committed to working with first responders, health professionals, policymakers and those struggling with addiction to end this epidemic once and for all.

This is the mission of the Opiate Epidemic Task Force, and we hope that Congress and the new administration will stand with us.

Gale Burstein. M.D., is commissioner of the Erie County Department of Health.

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