Feds Freeze Mental Health, Substance Abuse Treatment Registry

By Keri Blakinger 01/15/18

Health advocates and government officials expressed concern about the sudden termination of the program in the midst of the opioid epidemic.

President Donald Trump

The Trump administration last week abruptly halted a program designed to help physicians, families and community groups find reputable substance use disorder and mental health treatments, according to reports. 

The National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices, launched in 1997 under the aegis of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), offers a website listing more than 450 behavioral health services deemed to be legitimate interventions. 

But on Jan. 4, the SAMHSA contractor working on the registry sent out a letter to program developers telling them of an abrupt halt to the program. 

“It is with great regret that we write to inform you that on December 28, 2017, we received notification from SAMHSA that the NREPP contract is being terminated for the convenience of the government,” the email said, according to STAT News

The registry’s website is still live, but no new programs will be added and the contract for running the database has been cut, officials told the Washington Post.

“I was shocked to learn that the NREPP contract has been terminated as an opioid epidemic continues to shake our nation,” Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) told the Washington Post. “I’m determined to find out why SAMHSA has made such a mind-boggling decision.”

The strike against the online registry comes on the heels of a Trump administration dictation to governmental agencies, banning the use of words like “evidence-based” and “science-based.”   

The program may not be over for good, though, as a SAMHSA statement online last week promised that a new in-house entity, Policy Lab, will “lead the effort to reconfigure its approach to identifying and disseminating evidence-based practice and programs,” according to CNN.

It’s not clear when any replacement might be up and running or what it might entail.

“I’m pessimistic,” said Warren Throckmorton, a Grove City College professor in Pennsylvania who teaches about evidence-based programs and practices. “Why did they stop something before they had something to put in its place? Why stop what was working reasonably well?”

In a statement late last week, Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, SAMHSA Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use, dissed the existing program as a “poor approach,” according to CNN.

"For the majority of its existence, NREPP vetted practices and programs submitted by outside developers,” she said, “resulting in a skewed presentation of evidence-based interventions, which did not address the spectrum of needs of those living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders.”

Indeed, a recently published paper in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that some of the registry programs had only small-scale studies on the books touting their success. 

Even so, the sudden move at the start of the new year alarmed some health advocates. 

"It came with such a blinding speed," Richard Yep, CEO of the American Counseling Association, told CNN. "Why didn't you start that system up and compare it side-by-side? Instead, to just cut it off, it makes no sense professionally."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.