LANSING — Michigan health officials say they believe the state’s substance abuse care system can handle the surge of people who will become eligible for treatment when the new federal health insurance system goes into effect next January.
An Associated Press analysis of government data reveals that nearly 88,000 alcoholics and addicts in Michigan will become newly eligible for insurance in 2014. If lawmakers approve expanding Medicaid eligibility — something Gov. Rick Snyder wants but the Republican-led Legislature is resisting — the number of people who qualify for substance abuse treatment could reach almost 177,500.
Nationwide, the increased demand could swamp an already crowded system, depending on how many people take advantage of the new coverage, but Michigan officials say they are confident they have the resources and manpower to treat the newly eligible.
“We, at this point, have the capacity to handle it,” said Deborah Hollis, director of the state’s Bureau of Substance Abuse and Addiction Services. She acknowledged that there could be some challenges in rural areas in the Upper Peninsula, where services are less common.
The new health insurance law provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for private coverage. It also specifies addiction treatment as one of the “essential health benefits” for most commercial plans, which means insurance sold on the exchange or provided by Medicaid must cover treatment for substance abuse.
Hollis said that up to 70,000 Michigan residents are receiving substance abuse treatment. There are only about 4,600 beds at the state’s treatment facilities, according to the 2011 National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services.
Randy O’Brien, the director of the Macomb County Office of Substance Abuse, said there are usually about 80 people on a waiting list there for residential treatment and methadone, a drug used to treat drug addiction.
But officials said the number of beds can be a misleading indicator of resource availability.
Sue Winter, the executive director of the Northern Michigan Substance Abuse Services, which oversees services in counties including Mason and Grand Traverse, said about 70 percent of the organization’s patients are treated in a group setting. This “allows you to really make services available in a real efficient and effective way,” she said.
Hollis said she does not foresee that people with substance abuse problems will be immediately “knocking at the door” once their eligibility kicks in. “We will have to do some educating and outreach,” she said, about the upcoming changes.
O’Brien said Macomb County is thinking about possibly expanding services, but has not taken any steps yet. “It’s hard to calculate how many people you are going to have and you can’t over-plan,” he said.
Ruth Sebaly, the chief operating officer of the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance, which provides substance abuse services for residents in Monroe and Wayne Counties, said the increase in newly eligible patients is a positive development.