VCU to spearhead evaluation for statewide opioid program

VCU was chosen to administer a five-year evaluation of a statewide program by Addiction Recovery Treatment Services (ARTS). The evaluation will address the increase of opioid deaths in Virginia by increasing their Medicaid-sponsored services in substance use disorder treatment.

In 2016, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Virginia Health Commissioner declared opioid addiction a public health emergency in the state.

According to the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, those on Medicaid are three-times more likely than non-Medicaid users to overdose on opioids.

The ARTS program seeks to increase outpatient and inpatient substance abuse treatment centers as well as increase the services under Medicaid coverage. This would ultimately increase the overall range of treatment in Virginia.

Some of these new services include additional peer support for those with substance use disorder and organized training for treatment providers.

However, treatment provider shortages across the state limit the government’s ability to treat opioid addiction.

In response, the ARTS program aims to increase reimbursement rates to treatment providers in hopes that their facilities will be more willing to accept Medicaid patients.

According to Andrew Barnes, professor in the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy and leader in the evaluation, the Medicaid program is changing in response to the Governor and Virginia General Assembly passing this benefit.

“The ARTS program endeavors to reduce the burden of substance use on Virginia’s Medicaid members and the communities they live in,” Barnes said. “The evaluation will provide much needed evidence on the progress this program makes to continue to improve the delivery system in Virginia.”

Sebastian Tong, a professor from VCU Health’s Department of Family Medicine and Population Health and contributor to the university-led evaluation, explained that more people who struggle with substance abuse are being treated as a result of Medicaid coverage extended to mental illness patients.

“A lot of people with mental illness also have substance addiction unfortunately,” Tong said. “I also think people with lower income have lesser resources to help address and treat substance abuse historically so that makes people on Medicaid have higher rates of addiction as well.”

The VCU evaluation team is lead by Barnes and another professor in the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy, Peter Cunningham. The evaluation will receive contributions from various professors and clinicians from the university. Tong is contributing to the evaluation from a medical perspective.

Those on the evaluation team will conduct interviews and site visits to determine the models of care provided by the ARTS program. The team will also evaluate claims data of Medicaid patients to see billing in terms of diagnosis, tests and medications.

“I’m the one that also does clinical work so I provide some expertise and background so I can answer any clinical questions the evaluation might have and help contribute make sure things are accurate from a medical perspective,” Tong said.

The evaluation will consist of analyses of the program’s success in reaching their goals.

These goals include: increased access to treatment and service utilization, and fewer overdoses, overdose deaths and children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome — a common disorder that occurs when a newborn is exposed to addictive drugs while in the womb.

The researchers will use different methods and a multitude of data sources including Medicaid claims and information from clinicians to evaluate the ARTS program’s impact on the opioid crisis in Virginia.

Tong hopes the evaluation will help weed out the ineffective policies currently in place for addicts and make room for more impactful treatment.

“What Medicaid can do is really focus on expanding what they are already doing and help focus and get more funds from the state to help grow substance abuse treatment.”


SaraRose Martin

Staff Writer

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