By Pat Anson, Editor
A new congressional report claims there is “overwhelming evidence” that Medicaid has contributed to the nation’s opioid crisis by making it easy for beneficiaries to obtain and abuse opioid prescriptions.
The lengthy report, called “Drugs for Dollars: How Medicaid Helps Fuel the Opioid Epidemic,” was prepared by the Republican controlled Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Democrats on the committee complained the report was concocted to discredit and demonize Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The report cites 1,072 people since 2010 that have been convicted or accused of using Medicaid to improperly obtain prescription opioids. That is only a tiny fraction of the nearly 70 million people enrolled in Medicaid, but the report nevertheless draws some sweeping conclusions.
“Overwhelming evidence shows that Medicaid has inadvertently contributed to the national tragedy that is the opioid epidemic, and has taken a toll that is playing out in courtrooms across the nation,” the committee staff reported.
“Other well-intended government programs, such as Medicare, may provide similar incentives for rational actors to engage in bad behavior with highly addictive opioids. These issues hold major ramifications for public policy, along with the nation’s health. They deserve serious consideration and a sober national debate, one we hope this staff report will help to initiate. The victims of this terrible epidemic deserve no less.”
The report cites dozens of examples of doctors and beneficiaries abusing the system, such as a $1 billion scheme to defraud Medicaid and Medicare that involved numerous health care providers.
Committee staff also claimed that drug overdose deaths were rising nearly twice as fast in Medicaid expansion states as in non-expansion states. About 12 million more Americans receive Medicaid coverage under Obamacare.
“While there is clearly no single cause to the epidemic, evidence has emerged that Medicaid is playing a perverse and unintended role in helping to fuel and fund the opioid epidemic,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) wrote in a letter to Eric Hargan, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The data uncovered in this examination point to a larger systematic problem – because opioids are easily obtained and inexpensive through Medicaid, the structure of the program itself creates a series of incentives for beneficiaries to use opioids and sell them for potentially enormous profits.”
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Claire McKaskill of Missouri, called the report misleading.
"This idea that Medicaid expansion is fueling the rise in opioid deaths is total hogwash," McCaskill said in a statement. "It is not supported by the facts. And I am concerned that this committee is using taxpayer dollars to push out this misinformation to advance a political agenda."
“Separate scientific studies conducted by other authors show that (the) opioid epidemic predates Medicaid expansion and that recent increases in overdoses stem from fentanyl and heroin, not prescriptions obtained through Medicaid. Unlike the report released by the majority staff today, these studies were both scientific and comprehensive.”
The report’s conclusions were also questioned by a longtime critic of opioid prescribing.
“I believe the access to prescribers that Medicaid, Medicare and commercial insurance offers does increase the likelihood that someone might develop a disease often caused by prescriptions,” said Andrew Kolodny, MD, founder and Executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP).
“But I do not believe that Medicaid should be singled out in this regard. Opioid overdoses have been increasing in people with all types of insurance and in people from all economic groups, from rich to poor.”
A report released this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that states with above average overdose death rates includes 18 states that expanded their Medicaid coverage and 8 states that did not. Overall, Medicaid covers nearly 40% of the two million Americans estimated to have opioid addiction.