Investing in Addiction Treatment: Is it Worth the Cost?
I recently talked with a Huffington Post reporter about the Real Tab for Rehab: Inside the Addiction Treatment Biz. In our discussion, I pointed out that to a large extent we still have an addiction treatment system that provides short-term (acute) treatment for a long-term (chronic) problem (this key point did not make the article). In addition, the current system treats less than 10 percent of those who could benefit from some kind of intervention at a cost that will likely reach $34 billion by 2014, more than double the spending from 2005. In my opinion, a lot of money is being spent on helping a minority of those who struggle with addiction, and sadly being spent on expensive residential treatment stays that research indicates is not more effective than less expensive outpatient care. Bottom line, the billions being spent could be invested in those who struggle far more wisely.
Not too many years ago I was attending an addiction conference where a number of treatment centers were advertising their services. I struck up a conversation with one of the marketing reps of a well-known residential program. She explained to me that because of the escalating cost of treatment, her team had developed a program that was only ten days in length, thus reducing the total treatment cost to about 15K while maintaining the effectiveness of a longer residential stay. As I always do in these situations, I asked her about proof that the program worked. She had a well-rehearsed answer, but like most treatment programs, no reliable and valid measures had been employed to measure outcomes. Even if some had been used, we know that 10 days hardly scratches the surface of what needs to happen to help someone with addiction.
Am I opposed to residential programs? Not at all. At times I believe these programs are life-savers and provide a strong foundation upon which to build a solid outpatient management plan. Many employ very skilled, compassionate, and hard-working counselors that know how to help patients stuck in addiction. Some charge reasonable rates for their services and avoid the “spa-like” add-ons that contribute nothing to long-term outcomes. What I am opposed to is marketing that feeds on the vulnerabilities of the populations that seek out their help. Many parents will go to the ends of the earth to help their addicted child and not think twice about mortgaging their home and draining their savings if someone tells them their program will save their kid. Even for those with money, the idea that one can “buy good outcomes” if just the right program is utilized is simply not true.
What can you do? You can spend your time understanding the nature of addiction, what science has to say about treatment interventions, and then spend your money wisely on what will result in the best possible long-term outcomes. What are some of the best financial investments in treatment? This slide from a recent presentation provides you a quick reference point for understanding how a number of treatment interventions rank in terms of scientific evidence. Notice that brief interventions, addiction medications (Campral, Revia), the Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA) and motivational enhancement interventions all rank very high in terms of evidence. Also notice what ranks far down the list: residential treatment, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and 12-step facilitation therapies, and general counseling. Note that it is not that these things cannot be useful in overcoming addiction, they can be very helpful. But when you compare their effectiveness through the lens of science to other options, and take into consideration the cost of each, it is clear we could be spending the billions of treatment dollars far more wisely.
The goal is to maximize the best possible intervention outcomes over many years (and for some a lifetime), not a few weeks or months. To do this, we need to employ the best interventions at the lowest cost. Combining free community resources, outpatient therapists, medications, self-help groups, and motivational incentives will give you the biggest bang for your buck.