Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans were already struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). Thanks to the prevalence of ‘hyper-potent’ opioids like fentanyl, there has also been an overdose epidemic, with nearly 50,000 people dying from an opioid-involved overdose in 2019 (source: The National Institute on Drug Abuse).
Those who were coping with substance use disorder prior to the pandemic were already vulnerable and marginalized, and the lack of access to ‘face-to-face’ treatment during the pandemic has been disastrous for the millions of Americans who need treatment. However, there are some encouraging developments that promise to help many of those affected by a substance use disorder.
Help for Addiction Is Getting Better and Easier to Get
In response to the addiction and overdose epidemic, The Biden Administration recently passed legislation making it easier than ever for health workers to use medication to treat substance addiction. Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) refers to the practice of providing ‘less harmful’ medication (most commonly, Suboxone) in order to ease cravings for dangerous drugs like opiates or alcohol. MAT has been shown in studies to lead to higher success rates for opiate treatment than traditional treatment for other common chronic health conditions, like diabetes or hypertension. The increase in availability to this effective medicine has done wonders for the 1.2 million Americans who are receiving MAT for a substance addiction.
Addiction Treatment is Not Expensive
Under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) of 2008, insurers, including Medicare and Medicaid, are required to provide the same level of coverage for addiction treatment and they do for other health emergencies and chronic conditions (such as diabetes).
Treatment covered under the MHPAEA Act includes medical detox from a substance, MAT, and outpatient treatment
In the past, some insurance companies resisted paying for addiction rehabilitation because it was lengthy and intensive. In recent years, insurance companies have realized that cutting corners when treating addiction is more expensive in the long term due to relapses. Medical studies have supported addiction doctors who have seen that ongoing outpatient treatment that includes MAT leads to the best outcomes.
TeleHealth Treatment is Widely Available
Patients are increasingly receiving treatment for an addiction via ‘remote’ appointment (ie over a computer or mobile device). While TeleHealth had been growing in popularity for years, it became a necessary and life-saving tool during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Most providers will require an initial medical checkup and evaluation, but then the treatment can be administered remotely, with patients ‘checking in’ and receiving support via their phone, computer or tablet.
The prescribed medication can also monitored and renewed online. Once a patient is stabilized on a MAT medication, the dosage can be gradually reduced over a period of months (or years) depending on their needs. Because addiction is a chronic disease which affects each patient differently, some patients may need to ‘check-in’ and receive medication for many months, while others can taper off entirely within a few months.
Modern Addiction Treatment is Effective
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), treatment for addiction works as well as treatment for many other chronic diseases. However, like other chronic conditions, treatment must be tailored to the individual patient’s unique needs.
As with other chronic medical conditions, recovering patients can relapse. Sometimes relapse is part of the recovery process, and it doesn’t necessitate abandoning treatment and ‘starting over.’ Relapse rates for opioid addiction are similar to diabetes and hypertension. But with the right help, relapse can be learned from and avoided in the future.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the best treatment outcomes for opioid addiction combine medication with therapy and counseling throughout treatment. One ASAM study concluded that recovery rates for opioid addiction are as high as 89% when counseling and medication are continued for the long-term. Recovery can be defined as being free from using the opioid drug for 5 years or longer.
Peer Support Improves Outcomes
During and after addiction treatment, ongoing support through twelve-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous is encouraged. These meetings also transitioned to be accessible remotely via ZOOM during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, recovering people can find meetings happening nearly 24/7.
There’s so much great help available that anyone who has become addicted to a drug can and should reach out and speak with a trained counselor immediately. There are a plethora of online resources toward that end, and a good starting point is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association (SAMHSA) Treatment Locator. This government resource catalogs providers in every city and state. They also have a toll-free number that is staffed 24/7.