With all the chatter about Obamacare, you may not have heard about health reform’s major implications for those struggling with drug abuse. (Check out our ongoing Affordable Care Act series with the Sun Journal for a primer on the law.)

Today, our health system largely segregates treatment of our physical health from care for our mental health. But the ACA views drug addiction and alcoholism as chronic illnesses, much like diabetes or heart disease, and requires that most health insurance plans cover them. Many experts believe this change could revolutionize addiction treatment nationwide, with an estimated 40 million people expected to enter substance abuse treatment as a result.

“It will have more far-reaching positive consequences for substance abuse treatment than anything in my lifetime, including the discovery of methadone,” Dr. Thomas McLellan, former deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said at a recent meeting of the New York Society of Addiction Medicine, according to DrugFree.org. “It will integrate substance abuse treatment into the rest of health care.”

By the time most addicts get treatment, they’re already severely sick, he said.

“If diabetes were treated like substance abuse, only people in the most advanced stages of illness would be covered, such as those who had already lost their vision or had severe kidney damage.”

As is true for other illnesses, the further down the path of bad health an addict is, the more miserable they feel and the more expensive they become to treat.

The law also encourages medical providers to screen for signs of problem drinking and drug use, much like they now check for early signs of cancer and other diseases. Additional incentives, largely grants, are available to better integrate primary care with mental health and addiction services.

Will Maine see an influx of patients seeking help for substance abuse? Will we have enough addiction specialists and other providers to treat them? We’ll look for those answers as the law kicks into high gear in 2014.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...