This physician was very aware of those constraints. He had tried to implement these modalities in his clinic, but they were rejected outright by administrators. We discussed some of my experiences in managed care settings as a consultant to internists in managed care settings. I had an internist call me and say that he had a patient who was addicted to opioids and needed detox prior to surgery. I called my boss about the resources available for that. He told me that we did not have the time available to do detox from high dose opioids. That problem has continued to worsen. This physician was also not having any luck with getting detox for pre-op patients. The opinion at the conference by speakers was that slow and gradual detoxification from opioids and benzodiazepines was the exception rather than the rule. It is theoretically possible in highly motivated individuals with a relatively unlimited time frame. The best approach seems to be fairly rapid detox with adequate protection (in the case of benzodiazepines and alcohol) against seizures. Attempts at "outpatient detox" range from handing the patient a bottle of benzodiazepines in the emergency department to "social detox" in holding areas that monitor people and send them back to the emergency department if it looks like they are going into worsening withdrawal. There are no acknowledged standards in the area. Nobody complains about this inadequate care for addiction most likely due to the stigma of addiction and the general plan of many places to "get rid of" addicts rather than providing them with any kind of treatment that might be useful.
The evidence-based psychosocial treatments discussed at the conference highlight further deficiencies in the system of care. The National Institute of Drug Abuse and their Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition) was referenced. Even a cursory look at these guidelines shows that there is probably no managed care system in the country that adheres to these guidelines. A couple of examples:
"Research indicates that most addicted individuals need at least 3 months in treatment to significantly reduce or stop their drug use and that the best outcomes occur with longer durations of treatment." (Principle number 5).
There are certainly plans that offer no coverage for addiction at the extreme end. Many plans that do, follow utilization review protocols that frequently review the treatment being provided with an eye toward providing the least expensive care. In some cases people with severe problems and no significant withdrawal or medical problems are discharged. The default position is that the patient must fail, in many cases several times before treatment is funded. In many cases there is a focus on whether the addiction or the psychiatric disorder is "primary" in order to shuffle the patient from one pool of money to another (addiction <-> psychiatry). All of this financial gaming leaves the addicted patient out in the cold. That starts with inadequate to nonexistent detox to treatment that lacks the necessary intensity to be successful. It can also create a very negative and counterproductive attitude by the system of care to the patient with the problem.
"Sanctions or enticements from family, employment settings, and/or the criminal justice system can significantly increase treatment entry, retention rates, and the ultimate success of drug treatment interventions." (Principle number 11).
All of these business manipulations do not bode well for people who need care for even moderately complex problems. Certainly the detoxification and treatment of an otherwise healthy 25 year old is much different from a 60 year old with cirrhosis and diabetes. But the system of care is currently not set up to provide necessary care for the least complex patient. At a policy conference in Hawaii in 2011, I asked the policy wonks who were there to tell us how the "medical home" would revolutionize care for addictions: "What would keep a managed care company from doing a screening exam and leaving it at that." His response was: "nothing". It appears that I am able to predict the behavior of managed care systems much better than the policy wonks.
What would help?
The same thing that many professional organizations have failed to do over the past three decades. Physician organizations like the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) need to promote adequate treatment guideline, make them publicly available, and embarrass these companies into using them. ASAM currently has a complex matrix that is supposed to correspond with levels of care. They are largely ignored by managed care companies. ASAM should talk about the heavy drinker coming into the emergency department and walking out with a bottle of lorazepam. It is rather ironic that NIDA does not step up and say what standards should apply, but any regulation needs to consider the Congressional sausage factory and their negative impact on quality care.
The negative impact of business on quality care is most obvious in the areas of psychiatric services and addiction. Following the status quo and even going as far as endorsing managed care tactics is good for business, but not for people trying to recover from addiction. From a policy standpoint, this is a much bigger problem than any issue with pharmaceutical companies, conflict of interest, or even perceived problems with psychiatry. Denying that basic truth may be the result of three decades of ignoring this problem, but complaining about less important issues will not change the skewed health care landscape or get necessary treatment for people with psychiatric and addictive disorders.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA