Access: The TAC Blog

Leading experts report from the intersection of affordable housing, health care, and human services policy.

The Next Frontier: Care and Service Integration for People with Substance Use Disorders - by John O'Brien

Posted Wednesday, February 22, 2017
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This month, states are submitting proposals to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, outlining their plans to address the opioid crisis. While the strategies offered in these proposals will vary, SAMHSA’s message is clear: these funds must be used to connect individuals with needed services in communities that have been hit hardest by opioids. Time is of the essence, and states have only a few months — lightning speed for most state bureaucracies — to increase access to substance use disorder services.

THIS MONTH, states are submitting proposals to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), outlining their plans to address the opioid crisis. While the strategies proposed will vary, SAMHSA’s message is clear: the funds it provides must be used to connect individuals to needed services in communities that have been hit hardest by opioids. Time is of the essence, and states have only a few months — lightning speed for most state bureaucracies — to increase access to substance use disorder (SUD) services.

Many states will no doubt use their awards to expand prevention and treatment programs. That’s terrific — enhancing the services that directly address addiction should be paramount. However, it is of great importance that federal and state agencies also ensure the availability of physical health care and long-term services, such as in-home supports, for individuals dealing with addiction. States should take steps to integrate these forms of care into the continuum of SUD services, rather than relegating them to separate systems.

Awareness has never been stronger of the importance of an integrated approach to treating diabetes, asthma, HIV/AIDS, and behavioral health conditions. Data has helped show the impact these health challenges have on people’s morbidity, quality of life, and health care costs, while also revealing that people who have any one of these conditions often have others on the list as well — or are at significant risk for acquiring them.

The good news is that insurers and health care providers recognize the need to coordinate medical, behavioral health, and long-term services. Over the past ten years, Medicare and Medicaid have laid the foundation for developing integrated care models to help tens of millions of Americans — and private sector insurance companies have followed suit. These insurers have learned from the pioneering work of health care providers in integrated care, and are bringing their efforts to scale.

A Good Use of Resources

Much of the energy powering integration efforts in behavioral health has so far been directed specifically toward mental health. As the opioid crisis intensifies, however, private and public insurers are paying increased attention to the impact of substance use disorders on morbidity. Meanwhile, prompted by federal requirements that many insurance plans cover SUDs, insurers have found plenty of data that offers compelling reasons to integrate physical health care, SUD services, and long-term supports.

Individuals with untreated SUDs and co-morbid medical conditions often incur high medical costs. For instance, $3.3 billion was expended in one year on behalf of 575,000 Medicaid beneficiaries with a secondary diagnosis of an SUD — triple the cost for those without an SUD. Two of the top ten reasons Medicaid patients are readmitted to a hospital within 30 days of discharge are SUD-related. Conditions that occur more frequently among individuals with SUDs than in the general population include respiratory issues, skin infections, and suicide.

Other problems related to SUDs are opioid-exposed pregnancies, drugged driving, and increases in Hepatitis C and in some circumstances HIV. Opiate use during pregnancy increased from 1.19 to 5.63 per 1000 hospital births from 2003 to 2009; seventy-eight percent of these births were to women covered by Medicaid. For newborns with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) and their mothers, the post-delivery costs are seismic — $43,000 per child versus $900 per child who does not have NAS.

To succeed fully, integration efforts must also factor in the social determinants of health. Many individuals with SUDs are homeless or have unstable living arrangements, challenges that often render health care needs secondary to the search for affordable and safe housing.

Meeting the Need

For insurers who are ready to introduce or enhance integrated care, the first task is encouraging recognition of the need. This may also be the easiest task, as insurers already have the data to make a strong clinical and business case for integration. The next step is to use the data to be more precise regarding who, what, and where should be the focus of insurers’ attention.

First, who? While some individuals are at elevated risk of acquiring a substance use disorder, others have struggled with addiction for decades. Insurers can’t assume that a one-size-fits-all integration program is sufficient. Using data analytics, we can identify the specific health care, treatment, and recovery service needs of different populations. These results can be used in turn to develop data-informed integration strategies.

Which leads to the question of what models an insurer might implement as part of an integration strategy. Some approaches are well-researched and proven to be effective. For instance, the Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) model has proven invaluable in assessing an individual’s SUD risk and providing immediate and short-term interventions. Screening and brief intervention should occur in a doctor’s office; if patients have more extensive treatment needs, the doctor can make a referral to an SUD treatment provider who is either part of the same practice or a member of a network of practitioners and organizations specializing in SUD treatment.

For individuals with more intensive SUD treatment needs, models for integration are still developing. Several states have created partnerships between physical health care providers and SUD care providers to increase access to evidence-based treatment, such as medications coupled with counseling. Other insurers have assembled teams of physicians, nurses, licensed SUD practitioners, and recovery coaches to coordinate the health, behavioral health, long-term supports, and social services needed by people with significant health and SUD challenges. Evaluations are underway to measure the effectiveness of these strategies.

And finally, the where. Where does it make sense for insurers to invest in new and existing models of integrated care for individuals with an SUD or at risk of an SUD? Again, the answer is not immediately clear. The models highlighted above are being tested in primary care settings, emergency departments, and the specialty SUD system. Some insurers have been working with health clinics to increase access to SUD medications (which generally must be prescribed by a physician or other health practitioner). Other insurers have invested in placing physicians, nurses, and physician assistants in SUD specialty agencies, creating teams to help the high need/high cost individuals who often engage with this system.

In these times of uncertainty, it makes sense to prioritize the protection of individuals’ access to insurance coverage and treatment services — but this can’t be our only focus. Excellent progress has been made over the past eight years to introduce and sustain integrated care for people with substance use disorders, and to test models that will improve their quality of care while reducing costs. Let’s keep going.


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  • John O'Brien, M.S. directs TAC's work on substance use disorders with an emphasis on helping states increase access to services, integrate with primary care, and reduce unnecessary costs by using Medicaid and other sources to support effective systems.