Another Day, Another Misinformed Article on Obama’s Addiction Treatment Record

Writing about President Obama’s record on drug addiction treatment without mentioning the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the development of the regulations for the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) is analogous to writing about LBJ’s record on health care without mentioning Medicare and Medicaid. But alas, Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post is the latest journalist to do so. The transformative impact of the ACA and MHPAEA on addiction treatment is not a hard-to-uncover secret. It has been written about extensively in the scholarly literature (see for example here and here) and in the mass media (see for example here and here). But, like a number of other journalists, Ingraham critiqued the Obama Administration’s alleged lack of commitment to drug treatment without even mentioning either landmark piece of legislation.

To Ingraham’s credit, he did at least look at some data, which was the budget for federal drug control spending across agencies:

So on the one hand, yes – it’s true that more federal dollars are going toward drug treatment. On the other hand, treatment and prevention account for less than half of federal drug spending, most of which still goes toward law enforcement efforts.

This conclusion rests on the false assumption that an administration’s financial commitment to addiction treatment is equal to federal spending on addiction treatment. But the ACA and MHPAEA are major federal actions that drive private dollars into addiction treatment by improving coverage for over 100 million people with private insurance. Analyzing what an administration has done in any health care policy area without looking at its laws and regulations for private insurance is generally misleading, and is certainly so in this case where none of the private investment is captured in federal drug control budget data.

Health care policy analysts generally see the Obama Administration’s addiction treatment record as the most praiseworthy in at least 40 years, and some journalists (e.g., Jesse Singal) have done a fine job reporting that fact. That does not however make it less disappointing to see yet another misinformed article written as if the ACA and MHPAEA never happened.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.