Commentary

By Senator Dianne Feinstein

Originally appeared in the Huffington Post

In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans died of drug overdoses — nearly two-thirds of those deaths were attributed to opioids.

Confronting the opioid epidemic has been one of the few policy areas with bipartisan support over the last few years.

Unfortunately, the Senate Republican health care bill being debated this week turns that cooperation on its ear. The bill would gut Medicaid, the single most important program for battling substance abuse in this country.

My home state of California saw nearly 5,000 overdose deaths in 2015 — the most recent data we have — around half of which were caused by opioids.

Addiction is a disease and must be treated like any other disease. That means ensuring appropriate levels of care and treatment. The Republican bill provides neither of these.

Instead, by slashing federal funds for Medicaid, the bill would decimate the existing substance abuse treatment infrastructure while offering a paltry, one-time fund in its place.

Given that the economic costs associated with opioid abuse are nearly $80 billion annually, this reckless proposal would have no effect on addressing the broader opioid epidemic.

In addition to gutting Medicaid, the Republican bill would also restructure the program so that it’s no longer an entitlement. This would mean fewer people would be covered.

Nationally, 12 percent of individuals who receive Medicaid benefits have a substance use disorder. And in California, where Medicaid covers more than one-third of the population, that means the treatment bill can be quite significant.

The state currently receives more than $15 billion annually through Medicaid expansion. If the Republican bill passes, it would place strict limits on how much federal money would go to states. That means California would have to either cut programs or raise taxes to maintain the same level of service.

The Republican Senate bill would also eliminate the requirement that all Medicaid expansion plans include coverage for substance abuse treatment.

That means not only that fewer people would be covered under the revamped Medicaid plan, those who are covered won’t necessarily have access to the treatment they need.

Americans suffering with addiction already struggle to receive treatment. In 2015, nearly 19.3 million people needed but did not receive substance use disorder treatment. We shouldn’t be putting up even more barriers.

Many of those who do manage to get treatment for their disease use medication-assisted treatment, which has increased over time with positive effects.

In some states, particularly those hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, Medicaid covers up to half of all medication-assisted treatment. Unfortunately, the Republican bill could make it harder to receive coverage for this treatment, which has been proven effective.

Senate Republicans have put forward a bill that eviscerates substance abuse treatment.

The gravity of the opioid epidemic requires immediate, sustained action. Now is the time to double down on our efforts to aggressively combat this epidemic, not end those programs that have already proven effective.

The Republican bill is a willful attempt to deny coverage to a huge subset of our population that desperately needs our help. I’ll do everything in my power to oppose this bill and encourage you to do the same.