statnews.com // By Gery Mendell and Thomas Mclellan / Photo by Laura Morton

A bond forged in the kind of tragic personal loss that has become all too common in the United States — each of us had a son die from an addiction — compelled us to do something about the sorry state of addiction treatment today. That work is paying off, as many of the nation’s largest medical payers have just agreed to help close the shameful gap in treating addictions.

Drug overdoses are rising sharply, touching every community. What makes the death toll from the opioid epidemic even more heartbreaking is that there is proven research, in both prevention and treatment, that could dramatically reduce this loss of life. But it is not being put into practice.

Research shows that addiction is a chronic brain disease that can and should be managed with medical treatment. This type of treatment, which varies by addiction and disease severity, can have the same effectiveness as management for other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. For opioid addiction, examples of medication-assisted therapy include the use of buprenorphine, naltrexone, or methadone. Yet unlike other chronic illnesses, only 1 in 10 Americans with addiction receive any treatment. Even worse, most who do get treatment receive care that is not based on solid research.

Recognizing this gap in addiction treatment, and believing that closing it has the potential to reverse the course of the opioid epidemic, we launched the Substance Use Disorder Treatment Task Force in April. Taking a businesslike approach, the task force brought together private and public payers, advocates and former government officials, provider groups and researchers.

Our mission is to ensure that every American with a substance use disorder has access to evidence-based treatment. We will not be writing another report. Instead, we will turn existing research into action to ensure its implementation across the country.

The first step in this initiative brought together the largest medical payers in the U.S., who represent more than 248 million individuals, to adopt eight evidence-based National Principles of Care. These will serve as the standard for substance use disorder treatment. The payers have committed to identify, promote, and reward treatment that aligns with the principles and to work collaboratively with the task force to monitor and evaluate their implementation.

By endorsing these principles, payers have stated for the first time that treatment for substance use disorders should and will be treated with the same resolve, respect, and ongoing support as other chronic diseases. This is the first step to ensure that the addiction treatment system in the United States aligns with evidence-based best practices. It will allow insurers to identify and reward health care providers who are delivering treatment proven to work. It will also provide doctors with the guidance to deliver this care and eliminate confusion among people with addictions, most of whom are unaware of the types of treatment they should request and receive.

For decades, addiction has been viewed as a moral failing or a character flaw. In fact, the addiction treatment system in the U.S. was developed outside of mainstream health care because of institutional stigma and the perpetuation of misinformation about this disease. Today, our task force and its members have taken the first step towards changing and improving the way that treatment for addiction is delivered in our country. People affected by this disease will be able to recognize and access treatment that has been proven to save lives, rather than relying on online searches or unsure guesses.

Every day we meet parents who have lost a child to a disease that is treatable. This must change. We can do this by shifting the way our society thinks and approaches addiction. By doing that, we can we ensure that addiction is treated with the same urgency, science-based practices, and compassion as any other illness.

Gary Mendell is the founder and CEO of Shatterproof, a national nonprofit devoted to ending drug and alcohol addiction. Thomas McLellan, Ph.D., is the former deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama. They are co-chairs of the Substance Use Disorder Treatment Task Force. McLellan is on the board of Indivior LLC, the maker of Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction.

Large insurers, payers commit to support evidence-based medical therapy for addiction