Medicaid Expansion Did Not Fuel Opioid Crisis

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study is debunking claims that increased access to healthcare and pain management helped to fuel the opioid crisis. If anything, the opposite appears to be the case.

The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that early Medicaid expansions in Arizona, Maine and New York may have led to lower overdose rates in those states.

"These findings suggest that Medicaid expansions were unlikely to have contributed to the subsequent rise in drug overdose deaths, and may even have been protective," said lead author Atheendar Venkataramani, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Venkataramani and co-author Paula Chatterjee, MD, looked at state-level data on drug overdoses from 1999 to 2008, comparing overdose mortality rates in the three Medicaid-expansion states to those in other states.

By 2008, Arizona, Maine and New York had about 7 fewer overdose deaths per 100,000 people compared to the other 47 states.

The differences were even greater when the three states were only compared to adjacent states: They had 17 fewer deaths per 100,000 people.

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Overall, the study suggests that drug overdose deaths were nearly 20 percent lower in the early expansion states.

"The results should provide reassurance to policymakers who are concerned that state Medicaid expansions, including the recent expansions implemented as part of the Affordable Care Act, promote rises in drug overdose mortality," said Venkataramani.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) – widely known as Obamacare – greatly expanded Medicaid coverage for millions of poor Americans, starting in 2014. But some critics have claimed the ACA made the opioid crisis worse by giving patients easier access to opioids.

“The Medicaid expansion may be fueling the opioid epidemic in communities across the country,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) wrote in a 2017 letter to the Health and Human Services inspector general. “Because opioids are so available and inexpensive through Medicaid, it appears that the program has created a perverse incentive for people to use opioids, sell them for large profits and stay hooked.”

The Penn Medicine study wasn't designed to determine why Medicaid expansion appeared to lower overdose death rates in New York, Arizona and Maine. But it does suggest that better access to healthcare was a factor.

“Improving people’s access to health care could have a number of effects. It may be that people had better access to substance use disorder treatment or better access to mental health or pain management. Or it may be that providing health insurance reduced the risk of financial ruin, which helped downward socioeconomic spirals that could lead to substance use disorder,” Venkataramani wrote in an email to PNN.

“If Medicaid expansions did increase access to opioids, then the effect of doing so was far outweighed by other forces that actually reduced mortality rates from drug use order. The mechanisms again are not known because of data limitations in this study, but access to regular health care, access to substance use disorder treatment, and improved socioeconomic circumstances all may have contributed to the slower growth in drug overdose mortality in Medicaid expansion states.”

The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid coverage to about 12 million Americans in the 31 states and the District of Columbia that opted to receive it. A recent study found that opioid prescriptions decreased slightly in those states, while prescriptions for addiction treatment drugs like Suboxone rose significantly.