White House Opioid Panel Pushes Access to Treatment

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, whose state of West Virginia has been ravaged by opiods, says more needs to be done to address the crisis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, whose state of West Virginia has been ravaged by opiods, says more needs to be done to address the crisis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 1, 2017 at 3:12pm

An advisory commission is urging President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency with regard to opioid abuse and addiction, among other recommendations to address a crisis that is claiming upward of 30,000 lives every year.

An emergency declaration “would empower your Cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding,” said a new draft report from the White House circulated on Monday.

Established by the president in March, the commission offered more granular recommendations for steps that the administration could take on its own. It suggested that the Department of Health and Human Services grant waivers that would allow states to spend federal money on treatment services in centers with more than 16 beds.

Federal rules currently exclude those larger inpatient treatment facilities from Medicaid reimbursement. The Drug Enforcement Administration should also require prescribers of prescription opioid medication to take a course on proper treatment and the risk of addiction, the report said.

Additionally, the commission called for the prescribers at federally qualified health centers to be eligible to provide patients with medication-assisted treatment.

The commission is led by New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Its members include Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina and former Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. The recommendations won praise from Democrats including Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey, who said that it was “past time” to make an emergency declaration at the national level.

“We must turn these recommendations into immediate action, showing serious and ongoing commitment to the impacts the opioid crisis is having on every community in the country,” he said.

Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, whose state of West Virginia has been ravaged by opioids, released a statement Tuesday saying, “While we have made progress in combatting this epidemic, there is still more work to be done. This report demonstrates the severity of this problem and offers solutions that can help us build on the momentum we have created.”

The commission’s call to expand access to treatment comes just days after a Republican effort to overhaul the health care system faltered in the Senate. The addiction and mental health communities have been warning for months that changes proposed to Medicaid could severely curtail access to treatment. The Republican health plans also would have made it easier for private insurance companies to limit coverage for addiction treatment services.

Cooper suggested that these plans were at odds with the goals of the commission. “We have to maintain and expand access to affordable and adequate health care that includes substance abuse treatment for all Americans,” said Cooper.

The panel also pointed out that under current law insurance companies have to provide coverage for a mental health and substance use disorder that’s equivalent to coverage for physical ailments. Christie said that the administration should step up enforcement of these so-called “parity” laws.

“Not providing real parity is already illegal,” he said, adding that Trump should urge the Department of Labor “to enforce this law aggressively and penalize the violators.”

The commission recommended extra funding to support state prescription drug monitoring programs and federal law enforcement agencies trying to prevent importation of illicit fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioid drugs, which often come from overseas. Health privacy regulations that currently prevent addiction treatment providers from sharing information with a patient’s other physicians or family members should also be changed, the commission said.

The recommendations published Monday were a draft. The commission is planning to finalize the report in the coming months.