By: Shannon Young

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose, touted a new federal law Thursday that seeks to combat the opioid abuse crisis by ensuring better tracking of Medicare prescriptions and helping treatment providers recruit and retain staff.

Clark, who has pushed to address shortages in substance use disorder treatment staff and the oversupply of opioids through electronic prescribing, praised the measures' inclusion in the bipartisan-backed "SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act" that President Donald Trump signed into law Wednesday.

"Both of these bills originated in conversations that I have had throughout my district with families, with health care providers -- whether that's in Arlington, or Framingham or Waltham -- and it is very gratifying to see their concerns that they brought to me end up in a law that is going to be so positive," she said in an interview.

The Massachusetts congresswoman called the wide-ranging bill package a "major step forward in delivering families across the country resources and relief they so badly need."

The workforce measure, which Clark and Kentucky Republican Rep. Hal Rogers introduced as the "Substance Use Disorder Workforce Loan Repayment Act" earlier this year, seeks to encourage more people to enter the substance abuse disorder treatment field by offering student loan repayment to those who agree to work in high-need areas -- places with a shortage of mental health professionals or a high rate of drug overdose deaths.

To qualify, participants must agree to work in full-time substance use disorder treatment jobs in high-need areas for up to six years. Eligible positions include direct patient care roles such as physicians, registered nurses, social workers and therapists, among others.

The congresswoman said the proposal, which allows eligible participants to seek real-time repayments of up to $250,000, came in direct response to workforce concerns raised by treatment providers and constituents across Massachusetts.

"I have heard from so many families in my district about how difficult and heartbreaking it is not being able to find treatment for their loved one," she said. "The provision that will provide student loan forgiveness for those professionals who go into providing treatment for substance abuse disorder is going to go along way to helping us recruit and retain the workforce that is necessary to provide good access for treatment and recovery for those who are so affected by the opiate crisis."

Clark added that she will be pushing federal officials to ensure the provision is enacted as soon as possible to prevent further workforce issues.

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates about 10 percent of Americans with substance use disorders receive treatment. Experts have attributed that low percentage, in part, to the lack of providers.

Despite a 2014 federal push to grow the behavioral health workforce, that gap is expected to grow in the coming years, with SAMHSA projecting significant shortages of psychiatrists, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors and substance abuse social workers by 2025.

Clark's "Every Prescription Conveyed Securely Act," meanwhile, will require all controlled substance prescriptions for Medicare beneficiaries to be transmitted electronically by 2021 so officials can better track and secure opioid distribution.

The proposal stemmed from a 2016 Health and Human Services Inspector General report, which found one in three beneficiaries had received at least one prescription opioid through Medicare Part D, nearly 70,000 Part D beneficiaries received "extreme amounts" of opioids and 22,000 beneficiaries "appeared to be doctor shopping" to obtain multiple prescription.

Clark, who noted that states with such technology have seen reductions in "doctor shopping" and in the loss and theft of prescription pads, said the measure will allow providers and prescribers "to better serve their patients."

The bill package, which cleared Congress with broad based support, includes several previously-passed House measures that seek to combat opioid abuse through Medicaid and Medicare coverage changes, among other things.

Specifically, the legislation calls for: Expanding Medicare coverage of opioid treatment programs and medication-assisted treatment, allowing more providers to treat opioid use disorder patients with Buprenorphine and mandating Medicaid coverage of all forms of medication-assisted treatment.
It further includes language to: Permanently allow physicians to treat up to 275 patients with Buprenorphine; provide consistent Medicaid coverage for at-risk youth; expand Medicaid coverage for foster youth until age 26; give the Federal Trade Commission stronger enforcement tools when bringing cases against companies that prey on individuals with opioid use disorders; and reauthorize and strengthen the Office of National Drug Control Policy, among other things.

Although Clark lauded the bill's inclusion of funding for her proposed student loan repayment program, the Massachusetts Democrat argued that more money is needed to support other provisions contained in the bill package.

"More funding is critical as we look at all the provisions in this bill, many of which are very worthy and will go a long way," she said. "But we need a commitment from Congress and from the president to put the funding behind these provisions so we can get money to states, health care providers and programs."


Original story here.