ASAM the Voice of Addiction Medicine on Capitol Hill

From one Medical-Scientific Conference to another, the ASAM Legislative Advocacy Committee works behind the scenes advocating for the addiction medicine specialty and its patients. The committee has much to show in terms of plans for the future and achievements from the past year.

ASAM Legislative Advocacy Committee Co-chairs Ken Roy, M.D., and Kelly Clark, M.D., M.B.A., report the committee focuses its efforts on both the state and national levels to represent the voice of addiction medicine. Dr. Roy currently serves as Medical Director at Addiction Recovery Resources, New Orleans, and Co-Chair of ASAM’s Public Affairs Council. Dr. Clark is the Behavioral Health Medical Director at CDPHP, Albany, N.Y., and an ex-officio member of ASAM’s Board of Directors.

“There are numerous issues to tackle in the area of addiction medicine,” Dr. Roy says. “But regularly, ASAM’s Government Relations Staff, and the Legislative Advocacy Committee meet to discuss our priorities and stay on track with those issues in which we believe we can be effective.”

ASAM’s chief concerns relate to state and federal policies that would expand access to treatment for the 23 million Americans who suffer with substance use disorders. Those policies most often tackled by ASAM’s Government Relations Department and Legislative Advocacy Committee include issues of providing parity in health insurance coverage for mental health and addiction disorders, securing the inclusion of strong addiction and mental health treatment benefits under health care reform, expanding and improving addiction treatment for America’s veterans, regulating the marketing of tobacco and alcohol products to youth, and increasing the appropriation of federal dollars to key government agencies that provide addiction treatment, prevention, and recovery resources.

To maintain a strong presence in the nation’s capital, ASAM engages in a blend of legislative strategies to advance addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery policies, such as “lobby days” and ASAM Action Alerts. In 2011, for example, 35 ASAM members participated in ASAM’s annual Legislative Day, attending meetings with congressional offices to discuss and educate members on federal policies related to the practice of addiction medicine. This was ASAM’s best-attended, most successful Legislative Day to date.

ASAM also organizes Capitol Hill policy briefings to educate Congress about the health, economic, and legal benefits of implementing pro-addiction treatment policies and partnering with mental health and addiction coalitions that represent a spectrum of public and private mental health and addiction issues.

In its advocacy capacity, Dr. Clark says one of ASAM’s legislative accomplishments in 2011 was its collaborative work with the Coalition for Whole Health. Specifically, Dr. Clark says it involved coalition comments made in August 2011 to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services regarding proposals to cover depression and alcohol misuse screenings for adult Medicare beneficiaries, something that is now covered, she says.

More work lies ahead for ASAM’s Legislative Advocacy Committee, including the issue of achieving true parity in health care coverage. Specifically, ASAM supports insurance coverage for the treatment of addiction that is equal to that of coverage for treatment of other medical illnesses. However, the path to achieving “real parity” has not reached the level it should, Dr. Clark says. Congress passed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in 2008, but the federal agencies responsible for drafting the regulations that implement this law have yet to issue final rules.

“As we look at health care reform, it’s important for legislators to realize that addiction is a biological illness, it’s widespread, and that to be treated effectively, it must be covered in health insurance plans,” Dr. Clark says.

Drs. Roy and Clark said ASAM continues to work with state chapters to strengthen the effectiveness of its objectives. To that end, Dr. Roy advises visiting ASAM’s website, where local chapters can access state and federal advocacy toolkits.