When it comes to treating substance abuse, Florida can pay now or pay later. In the quest to trim the state budget, lawmakers are gambling on later.
The state prison system has been told to trim $3 million from its drug treatment programs. And cuts to community treatment centers loom large because of state-mandated cuts in local government spending.
It's politically easy to cut treatment programs for drug and alcohol abusers, since they have no advocacy group beyond the caregivers who see the difference that treatment can make.
But it's a risky strategy, given the carnage that substance abuse creates on our roads, in our emergency rooms, in our schools and in our families.
Because of costs, only about 30 percent of Floridians who need substance-abuse treatment can access it, experts say.
Because of proposed cuts, Mary Lynn Ulrey, executive director of Hillsborough's community-based DACCO program, expects her waiting list for inpatient treatment to grow from about 20 people a month to about 40. Behind those numbers are real people and desperate families who need help now, not months from now.
She also worries about losing a $250,000 grant that last year paid to screen 497 pregnant women for drug abuse. Of those, 50 completed a drug treatment program and 38 babies were born drug free.
Already, Ulrey said the number of emergency detox beds has dropped from 35 to 20 because of flat funding.
Consider the context:
•Seventy percent of the people in Florida prisons - 65,000 people - have drug problems. Without intervention, they will bring those problems back to their communities when released.
•Seventy percent of foster children entered the child welfare system because their parents had drug problems.
•Last year in Hillsborough, 484 people died with illegal drugs in their systems.
•Many inmates who've been ordered into residential treatment programs must remain in jail - costing taxpayers $72 a day - because there are no open beds.
•Alcohol and drug abuse costs the American economy an estimated $366 billion in lost productivity, health care costs and crime.
One might wonder whether treatment really works, given the celebrities who fly in and out of care centers. But in the last quarter century, much has been learned about the biological mechanisms of addiction and its effects on the brain. The evidence is that treatment works - if patients participate in their care. But treatment takes longer than 30 days - the average in-patient stay set by insurance company reimbursement limits.
Worse, many insurance carriers have cut coverage of substance-abuse treatment altogether. As a result, caregivers find themselves gaming the system to get reimbursed, diagnosing people with 'mental health' issues instead of drug or alcohol dependency. A legislative effort to require companies that sell health insurance in Florida to also cover drug treatment deserves more momentum.
Tallahassee faces tough choices, but cutting substance-abuse treatment programs is a dangerous strategy for which Florida families will pay a long-term price, with interest.
An Editorial from The Tampa Tribune
Published: October 17, 2007