8 Care Principles to Improve Substance Use Disorder Treatment

Task force cites medication-assisted treatment, universal screening as key to better outcomes

Substance use
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More than 20 million Americans struggle with substance use disorder (SUD), and upwards of 33,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2015. Fortunately, effective treatment exists. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which pairs U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs with behavioral therapies, reduces both illicit opioid use and overdose fatalities.

But access to MAT remains elusive for many people largely because treatment providers do not always provide their patients with the evidence-based care shown to be most effective. Public and private payers can play a key role in addressing this problem by encouraging their enrollees to use providers who deliver high-quality, evidence-based care and rewarding those who do.

As a needed step in this direction, the new Substance Use Disorder Treatment Task Force— launched last spring by Shatterproof, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the implementation of evidence-based solutions to address the SUD epidemic—created a list of national principles of care for SUD treatment to help guide effective care. These eight evidence-based principles have been shown to improve health outcomes and save lives. Sixteen insurance companies have agreed to identify, promote, and reward SUD treatment that aligns with these principles, which are:

  1. Universal screening for SUD across medical care settings.
  2. Personalized diagnosis, assessment, and treatment planning.
  3. Rapid access to appropriate SUD care.
  4. Engagement in continuing long-term outpatient care, with monitoring and adjustments to treatment.
  5. Concurrent, coordinated care for physical and mental illness.
  6. Access to fully trained and accredited behavioral health professionals.
  7. Access to FDA-approved medications.
  8. Access to nonmedical recovery support services.

The task force brings together public and private payers as well as advocates, policymakers, and other stakeholders. The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted the inaugural meeting of the task force this fall, during which members met to outline and discuss principles of care. Following that meeting, the group refined and reached consensus on the final list, with principles based on research from the past 30 years, including recommendations from the 2016 “Facing Addiction in America: Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.”

The task force will continue its work by focusing on implementing the principles, providing a platform to learn and share innovative strategies, and measuring the initiative’s success. In particular, the task force will examine the possibility of establishing a process for certifying providers who have implemented the principles. It will also engage with the broader stakeholder community in the next phases of work.

By joining together, patients, providers, and payers have the opportunity to dramatically increase the quality of substance use treatment in the United States. Incorporating these evidence-based principles of care in insurance programs is a much needed step forward in addressing the opioid epidemic and improving the lives of people with SUD and their families.

Josh Rising directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ health care programs.

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