Oregon's State-Funded Addiction Treatment Pays Off

By McCarton Ackerman 12/18/12

The state's strategy of investing in addiction treatment reaps human and financial rewards.

Potluck in the Park is one of many state
Photo via

Forking out for addiction treatment early to avoid further costs down the line is paying off in the state of Oregon. National research shows that treatment leads to long-term savings in the areas of crime, employment and medical costs—an estimated $7 saved for each dollar invested. "There's absolutely solid, irrefutable evidence that there is a savings—always—in funding addiction treatment and prevention," says Karen Wheeler, addiction programs administrator for the Oregon Health Authority. "You pay one way or the other." With this attitude, Oregon has established one of the most progressive programs in the country in recent years: Oregon Health Authority spends $51 million a year on substance abuse treatment, up $11 million from six years ago, and the state's Medicaid program covers outpatient, detox and residential care for the poor and disabled.

By way of contrast, Kentucky—a state with a similar population of about 4 million people—spends only $29 million a year on treatment, and substance-abuse issues generally aren't covered there by Medicaid. Oregon admits twice as many addicts for treatment as Kentucky—48,833 compared with 21,474, according to the latest federal data from 2009—and provides more of them with treatment in long-term, residential facilities (10% vs. 1.1%). So perhaps it's unsurprising that fatal overdose rates are much lower in Oregon: 11.7 per 100,000 people in 2008 (the most recent year available), compared with 17.9 in Kentucky, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We look at addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease," says Therese Hutchinson of the Oregon Health Authority. "It is a physical health issue, and you treat it like a physical health issue." While Oregon still has waiting lists of two to four weeks for some of its residential care centers (compared to upwards of three months in Kentucky), the state proactively seeks alternative options for patients, placing them in other available programs and support groups. Oregon's state, county and municipal governments, and its treatment providers, have created a coordinated network of support to help get people into treatment. Hutchinson adds, "When you have a system that values cooperation, you're able to work toward a common vision and common goals." Even outside of the system, Oregonians are known for supporting addiction causes through non-profit organizations and community events—including Portland's Potluck in the Park, which serves 400-600 hot meals every weekend to addicts and others in need.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.