Dear Bill Keller, Please Start Taking Drug Addiction Treatment Seriously

In his closing contribution to the New York Times, Bill Keller laments President Obama’s unwillingness to invest in drug addiction treatment. It’s a common jab, made by many commentators (see for example here and here).

It is also embarrassingly, verifiably, wrong.

I am sure Mr. Keller and all the other journalistic critics of Obama’s drug treatment record have heard of The Affordable Care Act. Why don’t they know that it expands access to care for over 60 million Americans by mandating that drug treatment coverage be included in every plan and be at parity with that for other disorders? How can they further not know that the Obama Administration’s regulations for the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act provide benefit parity to more than 100 million Americans with employer-provided health insurance? More generally, how can they not know that independent analysts at CMS consider the current public policy environment the most dramatic improvement in the quantity and quality of addiction treatment in U.S. history?

I submit that Keller and his fellow critics would never confidently make such data-free assertions about cardiology, oncology or indeed any other area of the health care system. But drug treatment, like drug addiction, is a target of great stigma and ignorance. So why bother to take it seriously enough to check your facts like you would with health care for any other group of patients?

I take Keller at his word that he doesn’t want drug treatment to be a third-class part of our health care system. That’s why I feel comfortable asking him to please start taking it seriously himself. Rather than use his platform to make assertions that are demonstrably inaccurate, I hope he will in the future engage in the due diligence any other area of health care would receive from a serious journalist.

Distorting Obama’s Record on Addiction Treatment

When a particular viewpoint becomes de rigueur among the chattering classes, journalists sometimes become lazy about subjecting that viewpoint to careful analysis. For example, the posh view now is that President Obama is an unreconstructed drug warrior who has thrown ever more people in prison and slashed health care for addicted Americans. Even though such assertions are refuted by readily obtainable data, the meme is so strong that many journalists repeat these falsehoods as if they were facts.

John McWhorter of the The New Republic is the latest offender. In the sort of “Obama = drug warrior = bad” article that appears at least once a week these days, he indicts the President for a lack of commitment to addiction treatment, noting that “funds for treatment under the Department of Education have been slashed a third“.

He could have gone further and stated that the Obama’s Department of Education has not budgeted even one penny for drug treatment!!!! Bad Obama Bad, you drug warrior you!!! But the rub is that the Department of Education has never funded drug treatment; health care funding comes through programs such as Medicare and Medicaid which are part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Attacking the President on the basis of the Department of Education’s lack of funding for drug treatment is no more reasonable that attacking him for the Department of Agriculture’s lack of funding for aircraft carriers.

In reality, the Affordable Care Act is the largest expansion of treatment for addicted people in at least 40 years, and perhaps in the history of the United States. These changes are augmented by new parity regulations for the insurance industry which require an increased investment of private dollars in addiction treatment. Neither of these policy changes is a secret: There are thousands of people in Washington alone who could have told McWhorter the facts if he had phoned them instead of phoning in his article. Indeed, even within the space of McWhorter’s own magazine is documentation that his claims about Obama’s addiction treatment policies are completely bogus.

I do not believe that McWhorter simply fabricated the accusation in his article. Perhaps it was handed to him by a fact-challenged drug policy advocacy group or by one of the Republican Presidential campaigns. But why did he uncritically pass it on, Breitbart-style, as if it were the truth? Most likely because it fits a narrative that is fashionable in the circles where reporters and pundits tread.