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Editorial: In tackling substance abuse, state could learn from Oregon

Dec. 20, 2012 @ 12:19 AM

West Virginia admittedly has a long way to go toward getting a grip on the state's rampant substance-abuse problem and developing a strategy that provides people the help they need to pull themselves out of addiction.

But as state officials try to tackle the issue -- and there's no doubt they should -- they might want to look toward Oregon and its approaches as a guide. In the Beaver State, helping addicts get the treatment they need is viewed not only as the right thing to do in terms of saving lives, but also as a practical way to save money in the long-term.

Surely, West Virginia officials can't object to either of those outcomes.

The consequences of high addiction rates are well known to West Virginians. An alarming number of people die, with the state having the second highest drug overdose rate among the states, at 25.8 per 100,000 people in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Addiction contributes to crimes against property and people, weakens the state's work force and adds to welfare and health costs. And it pinches the budget of the state, which is wrestling now with ways to reduce the state's burgeoning prison and jail populations. If that particular problem isn't addressed successfully, the state faces the prospect of building another prison at a cost of $200 million or more -- and even that isn't likely to fix the problem.

So far, West Virginia has invested relatively little in treatment programs. But it's become clear that it must.

Oregon, on the other hand, has chosen to invest significantly on addiction treatment, to the tune of about $51 million a year now. Officials there believe in the research that says treatment saves lives, reduces crime and medical expenses, and boosts employment, according to a recent report by Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. The bottom line, officials there say, is that every dollar spent on treatment actually saves an average of $7.

Oregon's drug overdose death rate is less than half of West Virginia's, and about 50 percent lower than Kentucky's. Oregon admits more than twice as many addicts for treatment as Kentucky -- 48,833 compared with 21,474, although their overall populations are similar, The Courier-Journal found, and Oregon residents are much more likely to receive intensive treatment.

Perhaps the biggest factor in Oregon's approach is that its Medicaid program covers substance abuse treatment, whereas Kentucky and a few other states do not, with just a few exceptions. That, in essence, makes treatment available to far more people. The result, Oregon officials told The Courier-Journal, is that those higher numbers of people receiving treatment will have lower costs for other medical reasons. The state also has found savings in its foster care programs as it works to treat addicted parents.

Also key for Oregon is coordination among state and local governments and providers and support groups.

Oregon's experience suggests that investing in more addiction treatment has important benefits without having to break the bank. It's a matter of focusing on the payoffs rather than just costs, and leaders in our region should be willing to adopt a similar attitude.

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