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Medicaid Expansion Would Aid Fight on Opioid Abuse, HHS Says

By Kerry Young, CQ Roll Call

March 28, 2016 -- Many people struggling with opioid abuse would be helped if more states expand their Medicaid programs and provide another route to treatment for those with severe disabilities, a top Obama administration official said.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Monday tried again to make a case for expanding the health program for the poor in the 19 states that have not yet done so. There are about 1.9 million people who have a substance abuse disorder or mental illness that potentially could be helped through a Medicaid expansion but who often earn too much to be eligible, HHS said Monday in a report. People fighting tough addictions cannot qualify for federal Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, which can include entry into the Medicare program before age 65, according to Richard Frank, assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at HHS.

"There's a law that was passed many years ago that means that you cannot qualify for SSDI on the basis of a substance abuse disorder," Frank said on a Monday call with reporters.

The new HHS appeal comes amid continued efforts to address the nation's opioid crisis. The Senate on March 10 passed 94-1 a bill from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, intended to bolster federal efforts to prevent and combat drug addiction. Widespread use of narcotic painkillers has been identified as a gateway that has led many Americans to heroin.

The Medicaid expansion, though, remains a highly partisan issue, with Republican governors and lawmakers opposed to short-term incentives in the 2010 health law to allow more people to enroll. Louisiana, where a Democratic governor took office this year, is in the process of expanding its Medicaid program, HHS noted in its report.

Expansion of the Medicaid program in more states also would help people who are coping with chronic mental illness and and may struggle to buy insurance. The group includes people suffering from anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and even schizophrenia. Frank said.

"You have a full range from some of the most common mental disorders to some of the most significant and disabling ones," Frank said.

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