How One Hard-Hit State Is Rallying to Support Those with Addiction Amidst COVID-19

Courtney Gallo Hunter & Edward Carlson
An iPhone displaying the meeting app Zoom, with headphones and a laptop. Photo by Allie Smith for Unsplash

No area has been spared in the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the most vulnerable populations is those with addiction. But if we’ve seen anything, it’s that states and addiction treatment providers have been incredibly resourceful in continuing to serve their communities while still taking appropriate measures to protect against the spread of the virus. One state that has been particularly hard-hit by the virus, Louisiana, rapidly jumped into problem-solving mode to ensure vital services continue to be provided to those with addiction.

To support providers in adapting their services to the virtual landscape, Louisiana has relaxed restrictions on telehealth services and released specific guidance to addiction treatment providers regarding the correct billing codes to use in order to receive reimbursement for offering telemedicine. The state has also implemented all exemptions at the state level for opioid treatment programs (OTPs)— facilities that dispense methadone—so that more clients can access their medication without needing to visit the facility in-person. The state is additionally considering reimbursement rate increases to residential providers and licensed mental health providers, as well as partnering with a large addiction treatment provider to leverage an emergency COVID-19 SAMHSA grant. The state is also starting a more robust communications social media campaign to enhance public awareness of how and where people can seek help.  

Karen Stubbs, the Assistant Director of the Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) in the state, is also focused on working with Louisiana’s addiction treatment provider association, Coalition of Louisiana Addiction Services and Prevention Providers (CLASPP), to continuously understand and respond to barriers providers are reporting. “By having a constant line of communication with our provider groups, we are able to hear their needs and respond rapidly, so that we can continue to help Louisianans with addiction, even in the midst of a pandemic, ” said Karen. To help facilitate this open communication, OBH and CLASPP are working to schedule recurring teleconferences between the two agencies, in order to allow CLASPP to keep the state updated on how providers are dealing with COVID-19 and begin a dialogue around ongoing concerns and issues related to the crisis.

“Communication truly is key,” said CLASPP Secretary/Treasurer Edward Carlson, CEO of Odyssey House Louisiana. “We know that answers may be hard to come by for everyone in relation to this pandemic, but simply having a line of communication helps instill a sense of collaboration and transparency that becomes even more critical when so much else is unknown.”  

It is clear that the pandemic poses a great risk to those with addiction, and that addiction treatment is needed now more than ever. For states looking to help their constituents with addiction, consider following Louisiana’s example and taking similar state-wide actions to respond:

  1. Survey your addiction treatment providers about their current and upcoming needs related to patients, protection against the virus, billing, and more.
  2. Keep providers informed to guide them in how to implement telehealth, screen patients for COVID-19, effectively maintain social distancing at facilities that cannot close, and more.
  3. Expand access to telehealth and telemedicine services for addiction treatment providers in the state.
  4. Ensure reimbursement of those telehealth services through Medicaid, and working with private insurance providers.
  5. Connect those in crisis with treatment and equip them with these questions to ask providers and evaluate level of care.
  6. Support those in recovery from addiction by providing online resources for information, treatment, or connection, like In the Rooms.

Courtney Gallo Hunter is Vice President of State Policy at Shatterproof. Edward Carlson is Secretary/Treasurer of Coalition of Louisiana Addiction Service & Prevention Providers (CLASPP), and CEO of Odyssey House.

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