Providing More Help for Addicts

Drug addiction has exploded in the United States during the past decade or so. Few, if any, states have been hit as hard as West Virginia, which has one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the nation.

Addiction is a disease, too often a terminal one. It needs to be treated that way.

But officials of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services do not see it that way. A special provision of rules for the two programs, the Institutions for Mental Disease Exclusion, may be keeping many addicts from getting the help they need to get clean.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. and 28 other senators are seeking a change in that rule.

As Capito explained it, the exclusion prohibits Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements for services provided by residential addiction treatment facilities with more than 16 beds. In other words, the very type of treatment that may help many addicts is barred to them if they rely on Medicare or Medicaid.

Tens of millions of Americans depend on those two programs. They cannot afford treatment on their own.

Capito and the 28 other lawmakers sent CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt a letter asking that the exclusion be lifted “in light of the ongoing heroin and prescription opioid epidemic …”

But their letter noted a similar initiative by senators in 2014. It did not receive favorable treatment.

Since then, the epidemic has worsened. Virtually the entire southern half of West Virginia has a heroin overdose rate in the top category used by federal statisticians — 20 or more deaths per 100,000 people. Many other states have regions in that category, too.

Federal officials are right to worry about Medicare and Medicaid finances. One means of addressing that is to limit the types of care covered by the programs.

But the drug abuse epidemic demands action in every way possible by local, state and federal governments. Capito and the other senators are right to seek more involvement by Medicare and Medicaid. Without the change they seek, thousands of Americans, many of them West Virginians, will die needlessly.