Reacting slowly to the drug crisis
How many West Virginians have died of drug overdoses during the past 11 months? How many more will die during the next nine months? Dozens? Scores?
How many of those lives might have been saved had low-income drug addicts been directed to effective treatment programs?
Those questions are not just academic. They involve the federal government’s incredible foot-dragging in addressing the nationwide substance abuse epidemic that now kills more people annually than traffic accidents.
Federal officials have granted West Virginia a waiver from normal Medicaid rules, allowing the state to use the program to pay for more drug addiction treatment services than had been permitted. Because Medicaid serves about 30 percent of Mountain State residents, the change opens up new recovery possibilities for many addicts.
One amended policy involves the size of addiction treatment facilities permissible under Medicaid.
As crazy as it may seem, the program’s usual rules do not cover addiction treatment at “institutions of mental disease” with more than 16 beds. State officials say the waiver will provide new options to help Medicaid-eligible addicts get clean, at treatment facilities with more than 16 beds.
Other changes made possible by the waiver will expand the options of both first responders and extended care professionals in helping addicts.
All of it could have happened much sooner.
State Department of Health and Human Resources officials applied for the Medicaid waiver last November. Federal officials, probably knowing West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, just approved the request.
Provisions of the waiver will not go into effect immediately. According to a published report, some of the most important cannot be implemented for about nine months.
A 20-month delay between a request to the federal government and implementation of the changes sought may not seem unusual to the bureaucrats in Washington. On any number of matters, it may be fine to spend that amount of time jumping through hoops.
But this is different. Why on earth was there no greater sense of urgency on a Medicaid waiver involving substance abuse? Did it not occur to the bureaucrats that while they filled out forms, insisted on more information from West Virginia officials, discovered more red tape and, in general, conducted business as usual, people were dying out here in the hills?