All On Georgia

Medicaid fueling opioid epidemic? New theory is challenged

An intriguing new theory is gaining traction among conservative foes of the Obama-era health law: Its Medicaid expansion to low-income adults may be fueling the opioid epidemic.

If true, that would represent a shocking outcome for the Affordable Care Act. But there’s no evidence to suggest that’s happening, say university researchers who study the drug problem and are puzzled by such claims. Some even say Medicaid may be helping mitigate the consequences of the epidemic.

Circulating in conservative media, the Medicaid theory is bolstered by a private analysis produced by the Health and Human Services Department for Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. The analysis says the overdose death rate rose nearly twice as much in states that expanded Medicaid compared with states that didn’t.

Independent experts say the analysis misses some crucial facts and skips standard steps that researchers use to rule out coincidences.

Johnson has asked the agency’s internal watchdog to investigate, suggesting that unscrupulous individuals may be using their new Medicaid cards to obtain large quantities of prescription painkillers and diverting the pills to street sales for profit. Diversion of pharmacy drugs has been a long-standing concern of law enforcement.

“These data appear to point to a larger problem,” Johnson wrote. “Medicaid expansion may be fueling the opioid epidemic in communities across the country.” He stopped just short of fingering Medicaid, saying more research is needed.

But if anything, university researchers say Medicaid seems to be doing the opposite of what conservatives allege.

“Medicaid is doing its job” by increasing treatment for opioid addiction, said Temple University economist Catherine Maclean, who recently published a paper on Medicaid expansion and drug treatment. “As more time passes, we may see a decline in overdoses in expansion states relative to nonexpansion states.”

Johnson is a conservative opponent of “Obamacare” who backed GOP efforts to curtail the Medicaid expansion. Wisconsin officials have urged him to push for changes in the health law to ensure the state wouldn’t be penalized for rejecting federal dollars to expand Medicaid.

Circulating in conservative media, the Medicaid theory is bolstered by a private analysis produced by the Health and Human Services Department for Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. The analysis says the overdose death rate rose nearly twice as much in states that expanded Medicaid compared with states that didn’t.

Independent experts say the analysis misses some crucial facts and skips standard steps that researchers use to rule out coincidences.

Johnson has asked the agency’s internal watchdog to investigate, suggesting that unscrupulous individuals may be using their new Medicaid cards to obtain large quantities of prescription painkillers and diverting the pills to street sales for profit. Diversion of pharmacy drugs has been a long-standing concern of law enforcement.

“These data appear to point to a larger problem,” Johnson wrote. “Medicaid expansion may be fueling the opioid epidemic in communities across the country.” He stopped just short of fingering Medicaid, saying more research is needed.

But if anything, university researchers say Medicaid seems to be doing the opposite of what conservatives allege.

“Medicaid is doing its job” by increasing treatment for opioid addiction, said Temple University economist Catherine Maclean, who recently published a paper on Medicaid expansion and drug treatment. “As more time passes, we may see a decline in overdoses in expansion states relative to nonexpansion states.”

Johnson is a conservative opponent of “Obamacare” who backed GOP efforts to curtail the Medicaid expansion. Wisconsin officials have urged him to push for changes in the health law to ensure the state wouldn’t be penalized for rejecting federal dollars to expand Medicaid.