A $30 Million Gift to Build an Addiction Treatment Center. Then Staffers Had to Run It.

Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and chairman of his own charitable foundation, gave $30 million to build an addiction treatment center in the central Illinois community where he farms. But the money was a one-time gift for infrastructure, so the clinic is on its own to keep it running.

DECATUR, Ill. — The question came out of the blue, or so it seemed to Crossing Healthcare CEO Tanya Andricks: If you had $30 million to design an addiction treatment facility, how would you do it?

The interim sheriff of Macon County, Illinois, posed the question in 2018 as he and Andricks discussed the community’s needs. When she responded that she’d have to do some research, she was told not to take too long because the offer wouldn’t be there forever.

“I thought: ‘Oh, my God, he’s serious,’” Andricks said.

That sheriff was Howard Buffett, the philanthropist son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. The younger Buffett ended up giving Crossing about $30 million from his charitable foundation to build an addiction treatment center in Decatur, a city with a population of just over 69,000 in the heart of Macon County.

There was a caveat, though. The donation to Crossing was a one-time gift to pay only for the buildings. It was up to Andricks and her team to find money to run the programs. And that has proven difficult.

The covid-19 pandemic upended everything mere months after the facilities opened in October 2019. An audited financial statement said the inpatient recovery center had lost $2.5 million by June 2021, and management worried about its ability to continue operating. Even so, the center remained open while other addiction treatment facilities around the country shuttered.

Now communities nationwide are preparing for an unprecedented windfall of their own for addiction treatment from a nearly $26 billion national opioid settlement and a more than $300 million expansion of a federal pilot program for mental health. The experience at Crossing offers them a model but also a warning: It will take more than a single shot of money to build a treatment program that can last.

Drug addiction wasn’t on Howard Buffett’s radar, he told KHN, until he joined the Macon County sheriff’s office as an auxiliary deputy in 2012. While the county has had some treatment resources, like a behavioral health center, it has one of the state’s higher death rates from opioid overdoses.

Buffett moved to the area in 1992 to work for food-processing giant Archer Daniels Midland. He runs a farm nearby and his Decatur-based foundation donates hundreds of millions of dollars for initiatives ranging from helping people kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa to revitalizing the cacao industry in El Salvador.

Soon after Buffett was appointed interim sheriff in 2017, he toured Crossing to learn more about local social services. The health center offers primary care, including mental health, for all ages and sees roughly 17,500 patients a year. Most Crossing patients are on Medicaid, the public health insurance for people with low incomes.

“He was impressed with what we were able to provide patients,” Andricks recalled. “I don’t think he expected the scope and size of what we do.”

Addiction treatment, though, is notoriously difficult. Evidence supports treating addiction like a chronic illness, meaning even after difficult short-term behavior changes, it requires a lifetime of management. Research suggests relapse rates can be more than 85% in the first year of recovery. So any new treatment program is likely to face headwinds.

Buffett didn’t set Crossing up for failure. In fact, he has helped fund other aspects of the organization’s work. Part of the idea behind paying for the addiction treatment buildings but not the operations, Buffett said, is to keep his foundation “creative.” If it spends all its money on the same programming every year, that means less is available to fund other work around the globe. Buffett said it’s also about sustainability.

“If Tanya can show ‘with this investment I made this work,’” Buffett said, “then other people should be making that investment.”

Crossing’s inpatient recovery center holds eight beds for medication-assisted detox, 48 beds for rehabilitation, and a cafeteria where meals are cooked with input from dietitians working with patients. An outpatient treatment center also has classrooms for continuing education, a gym with a small bowling alley, and a movie theater. Buffett insisted on the last two amenities. (“People have to feel good about getting better,” he said.)

A separate building holds 64 beds of transitional housing, and just across the street are 20 rent-controlled apartments. Buffett spent an additional $25 million on buildings at that campus for other organizations focused on housing, workforce development, and education, among other things.

“There’s a lot to like in this program,” said Dr. Bradley Stein, director of Rand Corp.’s Opioid Policy and Tools Information Center.

As positives, Stein pointed specifically to the spectrum of care offered to patients as they progress in their recovery, the use of medication-assisted treatment to help stave off physical cravings for opioids, the connection to the health center, and even the involvement of law enforcement.

Laura Cogan, a 36-year-old mother who has struggled with addiction since she was 14, is one of the patients working their way through the system.

Cogan said she was the first patient in the doors when the recovery center opened. Less than 24 hours later, she was also the first patient to walk out.

The biggest challenge with Cogan’s previous attempts at recovery, she said, was never being sure about her next steps: What was she supposed to do after getting out of detox and residential treatment?

Crossing’s approach was designed to address that by providing transitional housing, easy access to outpatient services, and educational programming.

On her third attempt, Cogan got a round of applause after completing the first three days in detox. After six days, she joined residential treatment. After a month, she moved over to transitional housing, began outpatient treatment, and started offering peer support at Crossing. She tutored other patients, taught a writing class, and helped them get on computers and fill out job applications.

Then the pandemic hit.

Like other health centers around the nation, Crossing turned its attention to providing covid testing and vaccines. Meanwhile, just about every aspect of addiction treatment became more expensive. Crossing halved the number of residential treatment beds so each room would have only one patient and converted the rooms into negative pressure chambers to reduce the risk of covid transmission.

Staffing grew harder amid a nationwide nursing shortage. The number of patients in residential treatment dropped, Andricks said, because few people wanted to live inside a facility and wear masks. It was common to have as few as 10 beds occupied on a given day. The women’s unit was temporarily closed due to lack of demand and staffing constraints.

Cogan said several other transitional housing residents left once the $1,200 pandemic stimulus checks arrived, with some resuming treatment when that money dried up. But Cogan continued. Eventually she moved into Crossing’s rent-controlled apartments, where she has been one of just a few tenants.

Without the federal Paycheck Protection Program’s $1,375,200 forgivable loan in 2020, Andricks said, the outpatient treatment program might have had to close altogether.

But momentum at the recovery center started to change last spring as covid cases tapered off, Andricks said. Hiring became easier. More patients arrived. In October, the center received a grant to use the apartments for women with a history of substance misuse who are pregnant or who have given birth within the prior year. They’ve placed six women, in addition to Cogan, there already. The inpatient recovery center now averages about 27 occupied beds a day, within striking distance of the 30 that Andricks said the inpatient center needs to survive.

Rand’s Stein suggested another measurement of a treatment program’s success: whether people in the community get into treatment when they need it. National “secret shopper” reports have found significant barriers to service, such as long wait times.

Crossing’s program quadrupled the number of residential treatment beds in Macon County, according to Andricks. In the three years since the inpatient recovery center opened, it has had over 1,300 admissions. While most patients haven’t stayed in recovery, staffers have seen a pattern of success with those like Cogan who stay on campus and become involved with recovery offerings — although Andricks estimated that’s fewer than 10% of the patients.

Cogan said she hopes Crossing doesn’t get discouraged. People are going to mess up, she said, but she’s living proof of the impact the recovery center can have.

“I’m one of the lucky ones and I don’t know why,” Cogan said, sitting on a couch in the apartment on Crossing’s campus that she shares with her 12-year-old son since regaining custody of him. “I just know that today I am. And I hope that more people get the opportunity.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


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NY requiere que doctores receten naloxona a algunos pacientes que toman analgésicos opioides

Aunque los titulares son por las muertes por sobredosis de drogas ilícitas vendidas en la calle, el riesgo de sufrirlas también es real para los pacientes que toman opioides recetados por sus médicos.

Sin analgésicos opioides para aliviar el dolor de rodillas y otras articulaciones, Arnold Wilson no podría caminar media cuadra. El ex enfermero de la ciudad de Nueva York, de 63 años, tiene una artritis incapacitante y toma OxyContin dos veces al día, y oxicodona cuando necesita un alivio adicional.

En los últimos años, también ha tenido otro remedio a mano: naloxona, un medicamento para revertir una sobredosis, al que generalmente se menciona con el nombre de marca Narcan.

Aunque los titulares son por las muertes por sobredosis de drogas ilícitas vendidas en la calle, el riesgo de sufrirlas también es real para los pacientes que toman opioides recetados por sus médicos.

“Me da una sensación de alivio y seguridad”, dijo Wilson, quien tiene aerosol nasal Narcan en su auto y en su casa. Su médico en el Centro Médico Montefiore, en el Bronx, le recetó opioides en 2013, después que un episodio de meningitis exacerbara los problemas en las articulaciones que Wilson tenía como resultado de dos aneurismas cerebrales y varios accidentes cerebrovasculares. Su médico lo instó a comenzar a tener Narcan en 2017.

Generalmente otras personas administran la naloxona, que comienza a revertir una sobredosis en cuestión de minutos. Aunque nunca la ha necesitado, la hija de Wilson, de 18 años, sabe cómo usarla. “Le he dado instrucciones sobre cómo hacerlo, en caso de que esté letárgico”, dijo. Su novia y sus amigos también saben qué hacer.

Una ley recientemente promulgada en Nueva York tiene como objetivo garantizar que la naloxona esté disponible si la necesitan personas como Wilson que toman opioides recetados.

Según la ley, vigente desde el verano pasado, los médicos deben recetar naloxona junto con la primera receta de opioides cada año.

Los factores de riesgo que activarían el requisito incluyen tomar una dosis diaria alta de un opioide (al menos el equivalente a 90 miligramos de morfina, o MME); tomar ciertos medicamentos, como sedantes hipnóticos; o tener antecedentes de adicciones.

Al menos otros 10 estados tienen leyes similares, según una investigación de Network for Public Health Law.

“A veces, los pacientes, especialmente si han estado tomando opioides durante mucho tiempo, no entienden los riesgos”, dijo la doctora Laila Khalid, codirectora de la clínica de dolor crónico del Centro Médico Montefiore. La clínica proporciona naloxona gratis a los pacientes a través del programa de prevención de sobredosis de opioides del estado.

Por ejemplo, la persona puede haberse olvidado cuándo tomó la última dosis y, sin darse cuenta, tomar demasiado, o tomar algunos tragos adicionales en una fiesta, dijo Khalid. El alcohol y algunos medicamentos, como las benzodiazepinas, amplifican los efectos de los opioides.

“Las muertes por sobredosis de drogas continúan aumentando, como cada año durante más de dos décadas”, dijo Emily Einstein, jefa del área de Política Científica del Instituto Nacional sobre el Abuso de Drogas.

En 2021, apuntó Einstein, las muertes por sobredosis en Estados Unidos superaron las 100,000 estimadas por primera vez, según datos provisionales de los Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC). Según estos datos, la gran mayoría de esas muertes, más de 80,000, involucraron a opioides, agregó. Si bien la mayoría de las muertes por sobredosis de opioides se atribuyeron al fentanilo ilegal, aproximadamente 17,000 muertes involucraron opioides recetados, incluida la metadona.

La naloxona, disponible como aerosol nasal o inyección, se considera segura y causa pocos efectos secundarios. No es adictiva. Los CDC recomiendan que las personas con riesgo de sobredosis la lleven consigo para que un familiar o transeúnte pueda administrarla si es necesario.

Los expertos en política de drogas señalan una estadística clave que leyes como la de Nueva York pretenden abordar: en casi el 40% de las muertes por sobredosis, otra persona está presente, según los CDC.

Si los transeúntes hubieran tenido la naloxona, “la mayoría de esas personas no habrían muerto”, dijo Corey Davis, director del Harm Reduction Legal Project en la Network for Public Health Law.

En todos los estados, incluido Nueva York, los farmacéuticos están autorizados a dispensar naloxona, a menudo bajo “órdenes permanentes” que permiten dispensarlo sin una receta, por lo general a personas que corren el riesgo de sufrir una sobredosis o están en condiciones de ayudar a alguien en riesgo.

Entonces, ¿por qué exigir que los médicos hagan recetas?

Obligar es más efectivo que recomendar, dicen expertos. Al requerir que los médicos receten el medicamento, más personas que podrían necesitar naloxona la tendrían a mano, si surten la receta. Pero no hay garantía de que lo hagan.

Una receta también puede ayudar a eliminar el estigma persistente de pedir una fármaco contra la sobredosis en el mostrador de una farmacia.

“Elimina los puntos de fricción”, dijo Davis. “Simplemente vas al mostrador y lo recoges”.

En un análisis de 2019, los farmacéuticos en los estados que requerían la receta conjunta de naloxona con opioides surtieron casi ocho veces más recetas de naloxona por cada 100,000 personas que los de los estados que no la requerían.

Missouri no tiene una ley de receta conjunta, pero el médico que ayuda a manejar el dolor a Danielle Muscato sugirió recientemente que llevara Narcan. La activista de derechos civiles de 38 años, que vive en Columbia, toma el opioide recetado tramadol y varios otros medicamentos para controlar su dolor lumbar severo y crónico. Está contenta de tener el aerosol nasal guardado en su bolso, por si acaso.

“Creo que es algo maravilloso” que la gente lo lleve y sepa cómo usarlo, dijo. “Ojalá esto fuera estándar en todas partes”.

Desde que entró en vigencia la ley de Nueva York, “definitivamente he visto un aumento de recetas que agregan naloxona a los opioides, especialmente si se trata de un pedido grande”, dijo Ambar Keluskar, gerente de farmacia de Rossi Pharmacy en Brooklyn.

Sin embargo, los pacientes no siempre entienden por qué lo obtienen, afirmó Toni Tompkins, farmacéutica supervisora de Phelps Hometown Pharmacy en la ciudad de Phelps, en el norte del estado de Nueva York.

Un caja de dos dosis de aerosol de naloxona generalmente cuesta alrededor de $150. El medicamento ahora está disponible en forma genérica, lo que puede reducir el costo de bolsillo. La mayoría de las aseguradoras lo cubren, aunque los pacientes suelen tener un copago.

Las personas sin seguro generalmente pueden obtener naloxona a través de programas estatales.

En Nueva York, las aseguradoras privadas están obligadas a cubrir la naloxona, y Medicaid también la cubre, dijo Monica Pomeroy, vocera del Departamento de Salud del estado. El Programa de asistencia de copago de naloxona (N-CAP) del estado cubre el costo de los copagos de hasta $40 para las personas con seguro, dijo Pomeroy.

Las personas sin seguro o aquellas que no han alcanzado su deducible pueden obtenerla gratis en uno de los sitios de prevención de sobredosis de opioides del estado.

En noviembre, la Administración de Alimentos y Drogas (FDA) anunció que está considerando que la naloxona esté disponible sin receta.

Aunque ofrecerla sin receta facilitaría la obtención del medicamento, a algunas personas les preocupa que el seguro no lo cubra. Además, “si un paciente simplemente lo recoge en algún lugar sin recibir orientación sobre cómo usarlo, eso podría ser un inconveniente”, dijo Anne Burns, vicepresidenta de asuntos profesionales de la Asociación Estadounidense de Farmacéuticos.

Algunos profesionales creen que se debe dispensar naloxona con cada receta de opioides, independientemente de los factores de riesgo. Así es en Rochester, Nueva York, y en los alrededores del condado de Monroe. En 2021, el ejecutivo del condado, Adam Bello, firmó la Ley de Maisie, que lleva el nombre de una niña local de 9 meses que murió después de tragarse una pastilla de metadona que encontró en el piso de la cocina de un vecino.

“Es horrible lo que pasó”, dijo Karl Williams, profesor de derecho farmacéutico y presidente de la junta de la Sociedad de Farmacéuticos del Estado de Nueva York. “Tal vez sea el próximo estándar que debería convertirse en ley”.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


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Journalists Dig In on the Fiscal Health of the Nation and Hospital Closures in Rural Missouri

KHN and California Healthline staff made the rounds on national and local media this week to discuss their stories. Here’s a collection of their appearances.

KHN chief Washington correspondent Julie Rovner discussed health care costs and the fiscal health of Medicare and Social Security on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” on Sept. 28. She also discussed President Joe Biden’s comments about the covid-19 pandemic being “over,” as well as health inflation, the government funding bill, and other domestic news on WAMU/NPR’s “1A” on Sept. 23.

KHN senior correspondent Sarah Jane Tribble discussed the collapse of two rural Missouri hospitals on The Eagle 93.9-KSSZ’s “Wake Up Mid-Missouri” on Sept. 26.

KHN senior correspondent Julie Appleby discussed the legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act provision that guarantees free preventive care benefits on Texas Public Radio’s “The Source” on Sept. 21.

KHN correspondent Brett Kelman discussed a recent Supreme Court ruling that may affect doctors charged with overprescribing opioids on Apple News’ “Apple News Today” on Sept. 30.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).

As Holdout Missouri Joins Nation in Monitoring Opioid Prescriptions, Experts Worry

Missouri is the last state to create a monitoring program to help spot the misuse of prescription drugs. But some public health experts warn that the nation’s programs are forcing people addicted to opioids to seek deadlier street options.

Kathi Arbini said she felt elated when Missouri finally caught up to the other 49 states and approved a statewide prescription drug monitoring program this June in an attempt to curb opioid addiction.

The hairstylist turned activist estimated she made 75 two-hour trips in the past decade from her home in Fenton, a St. Louis suburb, to the state capital, Jefferson City, to convince Republican lawmakers that monitoring how doctors and pharmacists prescribe and dispense controlled substances could help save people like her son, Kevin Mullane.

He was a poet and skateboarder who she said turned to drugs after she and his dad divorced. He started “doctor-shopping” at about age 17 and was able to obtain multiple prescriptions for the pain medication OxyContin. He died in 2009 at 21 from a heroin overdose.

If the state had had a monitoring program, doctors might have detected Mullane’s addiction and, Arbini thinks, her son might still be alive. She said it’s been embarrassing that it’s taken Missouri so long to agree to add one.

“As a parent, you would stand in front of a train; you would protect your child forever — and if this helps, it helps,” said Arbini, 61. “It can’t kill more people, I don’t think.”

But even though Missouri was the lone outlier, it had not been among the states with the highest opioid overdose death rates. Missouri had an average annual rank of 16th among states from 2010 through 2019, as the country descended into an opioid epidemic, according to a KHN analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data compiled by KFF.

Some in public health now argue that when providers use such monitoring programs to cut off prescription opiate misuse, people who have an addiction instead turn to heroin and fentanyl. That means Missouri’s new toll could cause more people to overdose and leave the state with buyer’s remorse.

“If we can take any benefit from being last in the country to do this, my hope would be that we have had ample opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes and not repeat them,” said Rachel Winograd, a psychologist who leads NoMODeaths, a state program aimed at reducing harm from opioid misuse.

Before Missouri’s monitoring program was approved, lawmakers and health and law enforcement officials warned that the absence made it easier for Missouri patients to doctor-shop to obtain a particular drug, or for providers to overprescribe opiates in what are known as pill mills.

State Sen. Holly Rehder, a Republican with family members who have struggled with opioid addiction, spent almost a decade pushing legislation to establish a monitoring program but ran into opposition from state Sen. Rob Schaaf, a family physician and fellow Republican who expressed concerns about patient privacy and fears about hacking.

In 2017, Schaaf agreed to stop filibustering the legislation and support it if it required that doctors check the database for other prescriptions before writing new ones for a patient. That, though, sparked fresh opposition from the Missouri State Medical Association, concerned the requirement could expose physicians to malpractice lawsuits if patients overdosed.

The new law does not include such a requirement for prescribers. Pharmacists who dispense controlled substances will be required to enter prescriptions into the database.

Dr. Silvia Martins, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who has studied monitoring programs, said it’s important to mandate that prescribers review a patient’s information in the database. “We know that the ones that are most effective are the ones where they check it regularly, on a weekly basis, not just on a monthly basis,” she said.

But Stephen Wood, a nurse practitioner and visiting substance abuse bioethics researcher at Harvard Law School, said the tool is often punitive because it cuts off access to opioids without offering viable treatment options.

He and his colleagues in the intensive care unit at Carney Hospital in Boston don’t use the Massachusetts monitoring program nearly as often as they once did. Instead, he said, they rely on toxicology screens, signs such as injection marks or the patients themselves, who often admit they are addicted.

“Rather than pulling out a piece of paper and being accusatory, I find it’s much better to present myself as a caring provider and sit down and have an honest discussion,” Wood said.

When Kentucky in 2012 became the first state to require prescribers and dispensers to use the system, the number of opioid prescriptions and overdoses from prescription opioids initially decreased slightly, according to a state study.

But the number of opioid overdose deaths — with the exception of a slight dip in 2018 and 2019 — has since consistently ticked upward, according to a KFF analysis of CDC data. In 2020, Kentucky was estimated to have had the nation’s second-largest increase in drug overdose deaths.

When efforts to establish Missouri’s statewide monitoring program stalled, St. Louis County established one in 2017 that 75 local jurisdictions agreed to participate in, covering 85% of the state, according to the county health department. The county now plans to move its program into the state one, which is scheduled to launch in 2023.

Dr. Faisal Khan, director of the county department, said he has no doubt that the St. Louis program has “saved lives across the state.” Opioid prescriptions decreased dramatically once the county established the monitoring program. In 2016, Missouri averaged 80.4 opioid prescriptions per 100 people; in 2019, it was down to 58.3 prescriptions, according to the CDC.

The overall drug overdose death rate in Missouri has steadily increased since 2016, though, with the CDC reporting an initial count of 1,921 people dying from overdoses of all kinds of drugs in 2020.

Khan acknowledged that a monitoring program can lead to an increase in overdose deaths in the years immediately following its establishment because people addicted to prescription opioids suddenly can’t obtain them and instead buy street drugs that are more potent and contain impurities.

But he said a monitoring program can also help a physician intervene before someone becomes addicted. Doctors who flag a patient using the monitoring program must then also be able to easily refer them to treatment, Khan and others said.

“We absolutely are not prepared for that in Missouri,” said Winograd, of NoMODeaths. “Substance use treatment providers will frequently tell you that they are at max capacity.”

Uninsured people in rural areas may have to wait five weeks for inpatient or outpatient treatment at state-funded centers, according to PreventEd, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that aims to reduce harm from alcohol and drug use.

For example, the waiting list for residential treatment at the Preferred Family Healthcare clinic in Trenton is typically two weeks during the summer and one month in winter, according to Melanie Tipton, who directs clinical services at the center, which mostly serves uninsured clients in rural northern Missouri.

Tipton, who has worked at the clinic for 17 years, said that before the covid-19 pandemic, people struggling with opioid addiction mainly used prescription pills; now it’s mostly heroin and fentanyl, because they are cheaper. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Still, Tipton said her clients continue to find providers who overprescribe opiates, so she thinks a statewide monitoring program could help.

Inez Davis, diversion program manager for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s St. Louis division, also said in an email that the program will benefit Missouri and neighboring states because “doctor shoppers and those who commit prescription fraud now have one less avenue.”

Winograd said it’s possible that if the state had more opioid prescription pill mills, it would have a lower overdose death rate. “I don’t think that’s the answer,” she said. “We need to move in the direction of decriminalization and a regulated drug supply.” Specifically, she’d rather Missouri decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs, even heroin, and institute regulations to ensure the drugs are safe.

State Rep. Justin Hill, a Republican from St. Charles and former narcotics detective, opposed the monitoring program legislation because of his concerns over patient privacy and evidence that the lack of a program has not made Missouri’s opioid problem any worse than many other states’. He also worries the monitoring program will lead to an increase in overdose deaths.

“I would love the people that passed this bill to stand by the numbers,” Hill said. “And if we see more deaths from overdose, scrap the monitoring program and go back to the drawing board.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).

Are Public Health Ads Worth the Price? Not if They’re All About Fear

Public service announcements about drug use or other public health problems often fall short, public health marketing experts say, because they incite people’s worst fears rather than giving people solutions.

ST. LOUIS — The public service announcement showed a mother finding her teenage son lifeless, juxtaposed with the sound of a ukulele and a woman singing, “That’s how, how you OD’d on heroin.”

It aired locally during the 2015 Super Bowl but attracted national attention and has been viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube.

“You want to tap into a nerve, an emotional nerve, and controversy and anger,” said Mark Schupp, whose consulting firm created the ad pro bono. “The spot was designed to do that, so we were happy with it.”

But like other ads and PSAs seeking to move the needle on public health, it went only so far.

Marketing experts say public health advertising often falls short because it incites people’s worst fears rather than providing clear steps viewers can take to save lives. They say lessons from opioid messaging can inform campaigns seeking to influence behavior that could help curb the coronavirus pandemic, such as wearing masks, not gathering in big groups and getting a covid-19 vaccine.

The Super Bowl ad was produced and aired by the St. Louis chapter of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse using $100,000 from an anonymous donor. Then-director Howard Weissman said a top priority for his group was for Missouri to start a prescription drug monitoring program.

Five years later, Missouri remains the only state without a statewide program. And the number of opioid deaths has steadily increased in that time, state data shows, up from 672 in all of 2015 to 716 deaths in just the first six months of 2020.

The national council, now called PreventEd, is one of many nonprofits and government agencies that invest millions in messaging aimed at curbing the opioid epidemic. People who study such advertisements said it’s difficult to measure their impact, but if the metric is the number of overdose deaths, they have not yet succeeded. The country set a record for overdose deaths in 2019 that it was on pace to break in 2020.

“You have to give them a solution, especially in a health context, like with opioids, because similar to with cigarette smoking, if you increase fear and don’t give a solution, they are just going to abuse more because that’s their coping mechanism,” said Punam Anand Keller, a Dartmouth College professor who studies health marketing.

To address public health issues, marketers often use images of diseased lungs to discourage smokers or the bloody aftermath of car crashes to prevent drunken driving. But these can provoke “defensive responses” that may be avoided by giving people ways to take action, said a 2014 International Journal of Psychology review of campaigns that use fear to persuade people.

Missouri’s state health and mental health departments, with the help of federal funds, spent at least $800,000 on advertising in 2019 to curb the opioid epidemic through their Time 2 Act and NoMODeaths campaigns, according to data from advertising agencies and partner organizations.

Mac Curran, a 34-year-old social media influencer, described his struggles with opioid addiction in a number of videos for Time 2 Act, one of which was viewed more than 100,000 times on Facebook. In another recent video, Curran used storytelling to highlight the benefits of getting treatment for his addiction. He talked about strangers cheering for him when he returned to a friend’s streetwear store after getting out of the recovery program, and discussed how he learned coping skills he could use throughout life.

Jay Winsten, a Harvard University scientist who spearheaded the U.S. designated-driver campaign to combat drunken driving, described Curran’s videos as “really excellent because he comes across as genuine and well spoken. People remember stories more than they do someone simply lecturing at them.”

Still, Winsten emphasized the importance of including actionable steps and would like to see Missouri and other groups focus on teaching friends of users “how to intervene and what language to use and not to use.”

Others, including the libertarian Cato Institute, argue that PSAs on drug use just don’t work and point to the history of failed campaigns to discourage teen marijuana use.

Yet agencies keep trying. Missouri’s mental health department and the Missouri Institute of Mental Health at the University of Missouri-St. Louis convened focus groups in 2019 with drug users and their families and captured their words on billboards for the NoMODeaths campaign. One said, “Don’t give up on treatment. It’s worth the work,” and gave a number to text for help with heroin, fentanyl or pill misuse.

In addition to giving information, the goal was “to let people who use drugs know that other people care if they live or die,” said Rachel Winograd, a psychologist who leads the NoMODeaths group aimed at reducing harm from opioid misuse.

She said she understands the argument that PSAs are a waste of money, given that organizations like hers have limited funds and also try to provide housing for those in recovery and naloxone, used to revive people after overdoses.

But, Winograd said, some of the advertisements appeared to work. The organization saw a big increase after the ads ran in the number of people who visited its website or texted a number for information on treatment or obtaining naloxone.

Although federal funding rose for fiscal years 2021 and 2022, Winograd’s team and state officials decided to cut NoMODeaths’ advertising budget in half and instead spend the money on direct services like naloxone, treatment and housing.

Now health agencies are consumed by the coronavirus pandemic and are trying to craft messages that cut through politically charged discourse and get the public to adopt safety measures such as wearing masks, staying physically distanced and getting vaccinated.

Convincing people to wear masks has been difficult because messages have been mixed. Missouri’s health department has tried to depoliticize mask-wearing and get people to view it as a public health solution, said spokesperson Lisa Cox.

But Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has appeared without a mask at public events and has declined to enact a statewide mask mandate. He also said at a Missouri Cattlemen’s Association event in July, “If you want to wear a dang mask, wear a mask.”

Cox would not comment on whether Parson’s approach undermined the state’s public health efforts, but Keller said it did.

Missouri’s messaging about vaccines has been much more straightforward and clear. A website provides facts and answers to common questions as it encourages people to “make an informed choice” on whether to get the shots.

Keller praised the “unemotional, not-fear-arousing” approach to the vaccine messaging issued so far.

“It needs the right messengers: well-known individuals who have high credibility within specific population groups that currently are hesitant about taking the vaccine,” Winsten said.

This time, Parson has been one of those messengers. When he announced the launch of the vaccine website in November, he said in a news release: “Safety is not being sacrificed, and it’s important for Missourians to understand this.”

In spite of the politicization of the virus crisis, Winsten, who serves on the board of advisers of the Ad Council’s $50 million covid vaccine campaign, has “guarded optimism” that enough people will get vaccinated to curb the pandemic.

And he remains hopeful that PSAs could eventually help reduce the number of people who die from opioids.

“Look at the whole anti-smoking movement. That took over two decades,” he said. “These are tough problems. Otherwise, they would be solved already.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


This story can be republished for free (details).

Listen: Missouri Efforts Show How Hard It Is To Treat Pain Without Opioids

KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber was interviewed by KBIA’s Sebastián Martínez Valdivia to discuss the challenges Missouri faces in managing patients’ pain amid the opioid epidemic.

KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber speaks with KBIA’s Sebastián Martínez Valdivia about the challenges Missouri faces in trying to treat chronic pain without opioids. Weber had reported that only about 500 of Missouri’s roughly 330,000 adult Medicaid beneficiaries used a new, alternative pain management plan to stem opioid overprescribing in the program’s first nine months. Meanwhile, 109,610 Missouri Medicaid patients received opioid prescriptions last year.

You can listen to the conversation on the KBIA website.

No Quick Fix: Missouri Finds Managing Pain Without Opioids Isn’t Fast Or Easy

In the first nine months of an alternative pain management program in Missouri, only a small fraction of the state’s Medicaid recipients have accessed the chiropractic care, acupuncture, physical therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy meant to combat the overprescription of opioids.

ST. LOUIS — Missouri began offering chiropractic care, acupuncture, physical therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy for Medicaid patients in April, the latest state to try an alternative to opioids for those battling chronic pain.

Yet only about 500 of the state’s roughly 330,000 adult Medicaid users accessed the program through December, at a cost of $190,000, according to Josh Moore, the Missouri Medicaid pharmacy director. While the numbers may reflect an undercount because of lags in submitting claims, the jointly funded federal-state program known in the state as MO HealthNet is hitting just a fraction of possible patients so far.

Meanwhile, according to the state, opioids were still being doled out: 109,610 Missouri Medicaid patients of all age groups received opioid prescriptions last year.

The going has been slow, health experts said, because of a slew of barriers. Such treatments are more time-consuming and involved than simply getting a prescription. A limited number of providers offer alternative treatment options, especially to Medicaid patients. And perhaps the biggest problem? These therapies don’t seem to work for everyone.

The slow rollout highlights the overall challenges in implementing programs aimed at righting the ship on opioid abuse in Missouri — and nationwide. To be sure, from 2012 to 2019, the number of Missouri Medicaid patients prescribed opioid drugs fell by more than a third — and the quantity of opioids dispensed by Medicaid dropped by more than half.

Still, opioid overdoses killed an estimated 1,132 Missourians in 2018 and 46,802 Americans nationally, according to the latest data available. Progress to change that can be frustratingly slow.

“The opioids crisis we got into wasn’t born in a year,” Moore said. “To expect we’d get perfect results after a year would be incredibly optimistic.”

Despite limited data on the efficacy of alternative pain management plans, such efforts have become more accepted, especially following a summer report of pain management best practices from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. States such as Ohio and Oregon see them as one part of a menu of options aimed at curbing the opioid crisis.

St. Louis chiropractor Ross Mattox, an assistant professor at chiropractic school Logan University, sees both uninsured patients and those on Medicaid at the CareSTL clinic. He cheered Missouri’s decision to expand access, despite how long it took to get here.

“One of the most common things I heard from providers,” he said, “is ‘I want to send my patient to a chiropractor, but they don’t have the insurance. I don’t want to prescribe an opioid — I’d rather go a more conservative route — but that’s the only option I have.’”

And that can lead to the same tragic story: Someone gets addicted to opioids, runs out of a prescription and turns to the street before becoming another sad statistic.

“It all starts quite simply with back pain,” Mattox said.

Practical Barriers

While Missouri health care providers now have another tool besides prescribing opioids to patients with Medicaid, the multistep approaches required by alternative treatments create many more hoops than a pharmacy visit.

The physicians who recommend such treatments must support the option, and patients must agree. Then the patient must be able to find a provider who accepts Medicaid, get to the provider’s office even if far away and then undergo multiple, time-consuming therapies.

“After you see the chiropractor’s for one visit, it’s not like you’re cured from using opioids forever — it would take months and months and months,” Moore said.

The effort and cost that go into coordinating a care plan with multiple alternative pain therapies is another barrier.

“Covering a course of cheap opioid pills is different than trying to create a multidisciplinary individualized plan that may or may not work,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, noting that the scientific evidence of the efficacy of such treatments is mixed.

And then there’s the reimbursement issue for the providers. Corry Meyers, an acupuncturist in suburban St. Louis, does not accept insurance in his practice. But he said other acupuncturists in Missouri debate whether to take advantage of the new Medicaid program, concerned the payment rates to providers will be too low to be worthwhile.

“It runs the gamut, as everyone agrees that these patients need it,” Meyers stressed. But he said many acupuncturists wonder: “Am I going to be able to stay open if I take Medicaid?”

Structural Issues 

While helpful, plans like Missouri’s don’t address the structural problems at the root of the opioid crisis, Beletsky said.

“Opioid overutilization or overprescribing is not just a crisis in and of itself; it’s a symptom of broader structural problems in the U.S. health care system,” he said. “Prescribers reached for opioids in larger and larger numbers not just because they were being fooled into doing so by these pharmaceutical companies, but because they work really well for a broad variety of ailments for which we’re not doing enough in terms of prevention and treatment.”

Fixing some of the core problems leading to opioid dependence — rural health care “deserts” and the impact of manual labor and obesity on chronic pain — requires much more than a treatment alternative, Beletsky said.

And no matter how many alternatives are offered, he said, opioids will remain a crucial medicine for some patients.

Furthermore, while alternative pain management therapies may lessen opioid prescriptions, they do not address exploding methamphetamine addiction or other addiction crises leading to overdoses nationwide — even as a flood of funds pours in from the national and state level to fight these crises.

The Show-Me State’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage to more people under the Affordable Care Act also hampers overall progress, said Dr. Fred Rottnek, a family and addiction doctor who sits on the St. Louis Regional Health Commission as chair of the Provider Services Advisory Board.

“The problem is we relatively cover so few people in Missouri with Medicaid,” he said. “The denominator is so small that it doesn’t affect the numbers a whole lot.”

But providers like Mattox are happy that such alternative treatments are now an option, even if they’re available only for a limited audience.

He just wishes it had been done sooner.

“A lot of it has to do with politics and the slow gears of government,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s taken people dying — it’s taken enough of a crisis for people to open their eyes and say, ‘Maybe there’s a better way to do this.’”