Sen. Joe Donnelly visits Oaklawn, talks addiction treatment

By Alicia Sisk
Oaklawn leaders met with U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly Thursday morning at the South Bend campus to discuss issues surrounding the opioid epidemic. Health care reform, trends in best practices for treatment and workforce development were among the key issues discussed. 
Preserving Medicaid funding is a top priority in treating addiction, as Medicaid is the majority funder of those services, said Oaklawn President and CEO Laurie Nafziger. The need for those services continues to grow. For example, in fiscal year 2014, Medicaid paid a little over $200,000 for addiction treatment of Oaklawn clients. This year, that figure is more than $880,000. Continuing parity — which requires health plans to cover mental health and addiction treatment equally to physical health conditions — is also imperative if we want to address the rising drug problem, she said. 
Donnelly affirmed his commitment to Medicaid funding, noting that the current Senate health bill would take $700 million from Medicaid to provide tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. 
“And none of them are asking for it,” Donnelly said. “When I speak to those people, they say, ‘I’d rather this person [on Medicaid] gets the care they need.’ ”
In May, Donnelly was part of a bipartisan group of 11 senators to discuss health care reform — the only bipartisan group to have met thus far. 
“We’re all elected. We’re all a part of this,” Donnelly said. “It shouldn’t be a Democrat bill; it shouldn’t be a Republican bill. It should be an American bill.”
Conversation turned to the increased prevalence of heroin use, the importance of access to services, harm reduction and medication-assisted treatment. 
“Up until five or six years ago, it was unusual to see a heroin addict,” said John Horsley, Oaklawn’s director of addiction services. But a perfect storm of increased prescription painkillers and a cheap supply of heroin coming in from Mexico has led to a boom. “Almost anytime I see a client, it started with pills. It quickly turned to heroin because of the price.” 
Horsley shared details of a partnership between Oaklawn and the St. Joseph County Regional Jail that allows Oaklawn professionals to meet with inmates 30 days before their release. At that time, a doctor can prescribe Vivitrol, an opioid blocker that also reduces cravings, and the inmate can set their first follow-up appointment. Establishing a connection while that person is clean means they’re more likely to follow up for treatment once released. 
Vivitrol is only one of the medications that can be prescribed to help with addiction treatment, and Oaklawn leaders advocated that which medication a person receives should be determined by their physician. Suboxone and methadone are also available; however, those medications are not as widely accepted by law enforcement, criminal justice officials or insurance companies. 
Training and workforce issues were also discussed. Donnelly and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) recently introduced a bill that would allow addiction treatment facilities to be eligible for the National Health Service Corps loan repayment program. The bill is a win-win, as it would increase the number of professionals able to treat addictions and save money through long-range costs associated with high-end services such as hospitals and jails. 
Donnelly left with a word of encouragement for those in the field: “You are really in some of the toughest jobs doing the toughest work, and this is truly the Lord’s work. You give families hope.” 


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