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SC professor receives grant to study Medicaid programs for substance use disorders

Published: Aug. 20, 2021 at 11:08 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 23, 2021 at 8:27 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that drug overdose deaths hit record highs across the nation in 2020.

In South Carolina, overdose deaths were up over 50 percent from the previous year, ranking in the top four states.

Christina Andrews, an associate professor in the Department of Health Services Policy and Management at the University of South Carolina, said the pandemic played a part in these figures.

“In a way, unfortunately, the coronavirus has really been a perfect storm for worsening of this opioid epidemic that we’ve been dealing with,” she said.

In July, Andrews received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study Medicaid-covered treatment of opioid use disorder.

She said Medicaid covers about 40 percent of people with an opioid use disorder, so they’re “an important policy lever” in helping people get the treatment that they need.

Many state Medicaid programs do not cover the complete number of treatment services, though. She believes Medicaid is uniquely positioned to reduce these record mortality rates if coverage access barriers are addressed.

“Do these limits on coverage seem to be linked to risk of overdose and death?” she said. “And this study will be the first to really look at this question.”

The 10-year trend in the state shows deaths from drug overdoses more than doubling since 2010. Sara Goldsby, the director of the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS), says the recent numbers are disheartening because there was only a three percent increase from 2018 to 2019. But the pandemic isolation slowed that progress.

“We always say that people use substances to either do one of two things; either feel good or to not feel bad,” she said. “So of course we had more people using all substances, including alcohol.”

Data from DAODAS shows that synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, drove this increase.

Recent trends show all opioid overdose deaths are up 25 percent in Lexington from 2014-2019, and up over 40 percent in Richland County during the same period.

County by county overdose mortality data from 2020 will be available next month from The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Both experts recommend those struggling with substance use disorder in South Carolina visit the Just Plain Killers website, which has information on where local residents can access naloxone, the life-saving overdose medication.

“There is hope,” Goldsby said. “And there are resources for anybody who is interesting in engaging and thinking about a life of recovery.”

In addition to Just Plain Killers and the Embrace Recovery SC website, the South Carolina Department of Mental Health and DAODAS jointly offer a support line for anyone experiencing mental health of substance use disorder. The number is 1-844-SC-HOPES.

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