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Economic Studies on the Opioid Crisis: Costs, Causes, and Policy Responses  

Johanna Catherine Maclean, Justine Mallatt, Christopher J. Ruhm, and Kosali Simon

The United States has experienced an unprecedented crisis related to the misuse of and addiction to opioids. As of 2018, 128 Americans die each day of an opioid overdose, and total economic costs associated with opioid misuse are estimated to be more than $500 billion annually. The crisis evolved in three phases, starting in the 1990s and continuing through 2010 with a massive increase in use of prescribed opioids associated with lax prescribing regulations and aggressive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry. A second phase included tightening restrictions on prescribed opioids, reformulation of some commonly misused prescription medications, and a shift to heroin consumption over the period 2010 to 2013. Since 2013, the third phase of the crisis has included a movement toward synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl, and a continued tightening of opioid prescribing regulations, along with the growth of both harm reduction and addiction treatment access policies, including a possible 2021 relaxation of buprenorphine prescribing regulations. Economic research, using innovative frameworks, causal methods, and rich data, has added to our understanding of the causes and consequences of the crisis. This body of research identifies intended and unintended impacts of policies designed to address the crisis. Although there is general agreement that the causes of the crisis include a combination of supply- and demand-side factors, and interactions between them, there is less consensus regarding the relative importance of each. Studies show that regulations can reduce opioid prescribing but may have less impact on root causes of the crisis and, in some cases, have spillover effects resulting in greater use of more harmful substances obtained in illicit markets, where regulation is less possible. There are effective opioid use disorder treatments available, but access, stigma, and cost hurdles have stifled utilization, resulting in a large degree of under-treatment in the United States. How challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may intersect with the opioid crisis is unclear. Emerging areas for future research include understanding how societal and health care systems disruptions affect opioid use, as well as which regulations and policies most effectively reduce potentially inappropriate prescription opioid use and illicit opioid sources without unintended negative consequences.

Article

The Relationships Between Impulse-Control Disorders, Compulsion Disorders, and Addictions  

Gordon MacNeil and B. Michelle Brazeal

This article presents information regarding the evolving understanding of the relationships between impulse-control disorders, compulsion-related disorders, and addictions (both substance-related and behavioral). The traditional model describing the relationship between impulse-control disorders and compulsion-related disorders is now considered overly simplistic. New research suggests that this relationship is complex, and distinctions between these disorders are not as solid as previously thought. Information about this dynamic relationship also has implications for substance use disorders and behavioral addictions.

Article

Addictions: Gambling  

Lia Nower and Kyle Caler

Gambling disorder is a significant public health concern. The recent and continued proliferation of land-based and interactive gambling opportunities has increased both accessibility and acceptability of gambling in the United States and abroad, resulting in greater and more varied participation. However, there is currently no designated federal funding for prevention, intervention, treatment, or research, and states are left to adopt varying standards on an ad hoc basis. Social workers receive little or no training in screening or treating problem gamblers, though research suggests that a significant proportion of those with mental health and other addictive disorders also gamble excessively. Raising awareness about the nature and scope of gambling disorder and its devastating implications for families and children is a first-step toward integrating gambling into prevention, assessment and treatment education in social work. This, in turn, will increase the chances of early identification and intervention across settings and insure that social workers can lend a knowledgeable and credible voice to addressing this hidden addiction.

Article

Effectiveness and Availability of Treatment for Substance Use Disorders  

Dominic Hodgkin and Hilary S. Connery

Drug and alcohol use disorders, also called substance use disorders (SUD), are among the major health problems facing many countries, contributing a substantial burden in terms of mortality, morbidity, and economic impact. A considerable body of research is dedicated to reducing the social and individual burden of SUD. One major focus of research has been the effectiveness of treatment for SUD, with studies examining both medication and behavioral treatments using randomized, controlled clinical trials. For opioid use disorder, there is a strong evidence base for medication treatment, particularly using agonist therapies (i.e., methadone and buprenorphine), but mixed evidence regarding the use of psychosocial interventions. For alcohol use disorder, there is evidence of modest effectiveness for two medications (acamprosate and naltrexone) and for various psychosocial treatments, especially for less severe alcohol use disorder syndromes. An important area for future research is how to make treatment more appealing to clients, given that client reluctance is an important contributor to the low utilization of effective treatments. A second major focus of research has been the availability of medication treatments, building on existing theories of how innovations diffuse, and on the field of dissemination and implementation research. In the United States, this research identifies serious gaps in both the availability of SUD treatment programs and the availability of effective treatment within those programs. Key barriers include lack of on-site medical staff at many SUD treatment programs; restrictive policies of private insurers, states, and federal authorities; and widespread skepticism toward medication treatment among counseling staff and some administrators. Emerging research is promising for providing medication treatment in settings other than SUD treatment programs, such as community mental health centers, prisons, emergency departments, and homeless shelters. There is still considerable room to make SUD treatment approaches more effective, more available, and—most importantly—more acceptable to clients.

Article

Mental Health Parity  

Wayne Lindstrom

Continuing a history of inequity, private insurers have placed restrictions and limitations on coverage for mental health conditions making access to treatment services increasingly more challenging. A state-by-state advocacy movement has led to the enactment of various state laws to require mental health parity. With the Clinton Administration’s attempt at health care reform, mental health parity became part of the health reform debate and led to the passage of the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996. The inadequacies of this law were partially corrected in the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which included mandated coverage for substance use conditions. The Obama Administration in 2011 included these provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which does not require compliance monitoring nor does it provide a definition for “mental health,” which leaves insurers to define it and hence determine what coverage will actually be available.