Another Day, Another Misinformed Article on Obama’s Addiction Treatment Record

Writing about President Obama’s record on drug addiction treatment without mentioning the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the development of the regulations for the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) is analogous to writing about LBJ’s record on health care without mentioning Medicare and Medicaid. But alas, Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post is the latest journalist to do so. The transformative impact of the ACA and MHPAEA on addiction treatment is not a hard-to-uncover secret. It has been written about extensively in the scholarly literature (see for example here and here) and in the mass media (see for example here and here). But like a number of other journalists, Ingraham critiqued the Obama Administration’s alleged lack of commitment to drug treatment without even mentioning either landmark piece of legislation.

To Ingraham’s credit, he did at least look at some data, which was the budget for federal drug control spending across agencies:

So on the one hand, yes – it’s true that more federal dollars are going toward drug treatment. On the other hand, treatment and prevention account for less than half of federal drug spending, most of which still goes toward law enforcement efforts.

This conclusion rest on the false assumption that an administration’s financial commitment to addiction treatment is equal to federal spending on addiction treatment. But the ACA and MHPAEA are major federal actions that drive private dollars into addiction treatment by improving coverage for over 100 million people with private insurance. Analyzing what an administration has done in any health care policy area without looking at its laws and regulations for private insurance is generally misleading, and is certainly so in this case where none of the private investment is captured in federal drug control budget data.

Health care policy analysts generally see the Obama Administration’s addiction treatment record as the most praiseworthy in at least 40 years, and some journalists (e.g., Jesse Singal) have done a fine job reporting that fact. That does not however make it less disappointing to see yet another misinformed article written as if the ACA and MHPAEA never happened.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.