Advocates seek stronger substance abuse treatment measures


LITTLE ROCK — Substance abuse costs Arkansas about $888 million annually, but just 6 percent of Arkansans who need help with a drug addiction actually receive treatment, according to two legislative task force reports.

State lawmakers are being urged to consider a number of measures in the upcoming legislative session to address the problem.

One of the task forces also asks the Legislature, which convenes Jan. 14, to support an expansion in Medicaid.

“We’re spending a lot of money on treatment, but I think the key is prevention,” said Sen. Mike Fletcher, D-Hot Springs, chairman of the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Prevention. “It’s a lot cheaper to prevent it than to treat it, I think.”

Annual reports presented to the Legislative Council this month by Fletcher’s panel and the Legislative Task Force on Substance Abuse Treatment Services — both comprised of legislators and substance abuse professionals from around the state — show substance abuse among Arkansans continues to be a major problem but that money spent to provide assistance reaches just the tip of the iceberg.

In its 17-page report, the Legislative Task Force on Substance Abuse and Treatment Services cited a 2005 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University which found Arkansas was spending about $888 million annually on substance abuse.

Of that, $845.6 million went to adult corrections, juvenile justice, public school education, child welfare and mental health, and public safety programs.

About $38 million went to prevention, treatment and research, according to the report.

“For each dollar spent on the burden substance abuse creates on public programs, only 2 cents is spent on prevention activities and only slightly more, 3 cents, on treatment programs,” the report said.

Sen. Bill Pritchard, R-Elkins, said the two reports have “some very eye-opening numbers in there about the drain that this is having on the state in terms of lost lives and people being incarcerated … and not getting the treatment they need. ”

The Legislative Task Force on Substance Abuse and Prevention recommended lawmakers take a number of steps, including legislation that would authorize confiscation of driver’s licenses of underage drinkings and require bars and restaurants to inform patrons about the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome.

The panel also recommended that legislators reject any efforts to divert to other purposes the funding provided to substance abuse treatment and cessation programs under the Arkansas Tobacco Settlement Proceeds Act of 2000.

It asked lawmakers to oppose legislation or regulations that would be contrary to federal laws on marijuana. A citizens initiative to authorize marijuana use for medicinal purposes in Arkansas was narrowly defeated in the November general election.

Fletcher said two of the recommendations — warning about drinking alcoholic beverages and pregnancy and allowing law enforcement to seize licenses of underage drinkers — were recommended by the task force two years ago.

Pritchard, who sponsored legislation on both matters, said the Senate passed the proposal that would have required signs in restaurants and bars warning people of the dangers of drinking alcoholic beverages and pregnancy. The measure later received a House committee’s endorsement but was never considered by the full House.

Pritchard said he never ran his proposal that would have allowed law enforcement to seize the driver’s licenses of underage drinkers.

The task force report said the measure should be considered again because it would correct a problem created in 2009 when the Legislature approved changes to the Arkansas Juvenile Code, including restricting the authority of an officer to begin immediate administrative suspension proceedings when a juvenile is charged with minor in possession of alcohol.

“This undermines the Minor in Possession legislation enacted in previous legislation as well as the proven effectiveness of

administrative suspension,” the Task Force on Substance Abuse Prevention said.

Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, said the organization opposed legislation in 2011 requiring the posting of signs in restaurants and bar warning of the dangers of drinking alcoholic beverages and pregnancy because it was too broad.

She said she would like to see the new proposal.

“It’s not that we don’t recognize there may be something to it, but sometimes it’s a matter of how you give that notice, or where you put that notice,” McNulty said. “There are already a lot of different things that are required where you are suppose to notify about this or that and it’s simply, in the business sometimes, it’s hard to allocate and decide and know where to effectively put those things.”

The Task Force on Substance Abuse Prevention also recommended the state continue to support prescription take-back programs and provide grassroots training for local groups to implement city and county social host ordinances to reduce underage drinking in private residences.

The task force that studied substance abuse and treatment recommended the Legislature support Medicaid expansion.

“The entire system in which substance abuse treatment is reimbursed now will be changing,” the report said. “A large number of our clients will qualify for new benefits under the Affordable Care Act that have not been eligible for services in the past.”

It said passage of Medicaid expansion was important and that substance abuse treatment providers be included in the discussions for both Medicaid expansion and the development of the health insurance exchange that serves the state.

The task force said various groups dealing with substance abuse treatment should coordinate their efforts.

“Although state agencies and the network of publicly funded community-based providers are in an excellent position to serve additional persons needing substance abuse treatment, there continues to be a lack of coordinated efforts to pull funding streams together to maximize their impact on the issue,” the report said.

The task force said the “state must learn that effective substance treatment requires several levels of care, from intensive residential treatment to transitional sober-living settings. Money invested wisely in the less expensive recovery support services will be money spent on relapse prevention.”