Helping more of those in need recover from addiction


Sen. Rob Portman - Contributing columnist



Drug addiction has reached epidemic levels in this country, with more Americans now dying from overdoses than from car accidents or homicides. It’s being driven by addiction to opioids—prescription painkillers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. It’s filling up our jail cells, our foster homes and our emergency rooms. It’s breaking families apart and destroying lives.

Sadly, Ohio is at the center of this crisis. At nearly double the national average, Ohio has one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the country and an estimated 200,000 people who are suffering from addiction. To push back, we need all hands on deck.

In the long run, I believe we’re going to turn the tide through a comprehensive approach, including better prevention and education efforts, stopping addictions before they start and before they can take their heavy toll on our communities.

But too many addictions have already started. We’ve got to ensure that those roughly 200,000 Ohioans who are struggling with this disease can get the help that they need to break the grip of their addiction and get back on their feet.

Fortunately, Ohio is blessed to have some incredible treatment service providers all across our state. I’ve been really impressed on visits I’ve made to the Zepf Center in Toledo, Project CURE in Dayton, Maryhaven in Columbus, First Step Home in Cincinnati, St. Vincent’s in Cleveland, and to dozens more facilities across our state.

Unfortunately, for some Ohioans, it’s still hard to get treatment even though they have health coverage. Under current law, Medicaid—an important federal payer for substance abuse treatment—will only pay for inpatient treatment at facilities with just 16 beds or fewer.

This rule was originally put in place with good intentions. It goes back to 1965 with the idea that larger institutional care for people who needed mental health treatment was not as effective as care at smaller facilities. But a half century later, larger facilities are better capable than they used to be, and we’re in midst of the worst drug crisis in American history, so this 16-bed limit just doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s an unnecessary barrier that is keeping some good treatment centers I’ve seen from helping more people. And it’s keeping some vulnerable Ohioans from getting services that would help them get their lives back.

Just last month I visited Commquest in Massillon, Ohio. I heard firsthand about how all 16 of their beds are filled, while 20 to 30 people in need are on a waiting list. While they wait for care they could become sicker and more addicted. I have learned about situations where someone tragically has overdosed and died while waiting for treatment.

Last summer, I sent a letter to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs the Medicaid program, and urged them to rescind this rule and expand coverage to all medically necessary care.

But for a permanent change to federal law, Congress needs to act.

Last month I joined with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to introduce legislation that would lift this outdated cap from 16 up to 40. Personally I would be comfortable lifting the cap altogether and relying on better measures of accountability for good care, but going up to 40 now is a good, common-ground first step in the right direction.

Our legislation would also help because it would establish a new youth addiction treatment grant program to fund facilities that provide treatment to kids under 21 in communities most in need—especially rural communities.

The bill would also expand access to addiction services for pregnant and postpartum women by providing them with coverage for treatment for up to 30 days at a time after they give birth. That flexibility would make it easier for them and their babies to stay healthy.

In the midst of an unprecedented drug addiction crisis, we can’t afford to let red tape and an arbitrary cap keep people from getting help. It’s time for the United States Senate to pass this bipartisan legislation so that we can help more Ohioans get their lives back from the grip of addiction.

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Sen. Rob Portman

Contributing columnist

Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.

Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.