SALT LAKE CITY — More than 16,000 Utah residents with drug and alcohol addictions will become newly eligible for insurance next year under the health care overhaul, but it's unclear whether state substance abuse facilities will be able to handle any increase in demand.
Right now, 23,000 Utah residents are receiving substance abuse treatment. But more than 16,000 people with drug and alcohol addictions are expected to be newly eligible for insurance in 2014 once the health care law takes effect, federal statistics show.
Utah hasn't decided whether to expand its Medicaid program, but if it does, that would add roughly 29,000 additional Utah addicts eligible for insurance coverage into the mix.
Across the state, 8.2 percent of the population, or 158,000 people, need treatment for substance abuse, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
A 2011 federal survey counted 975 beds at treatment facilities across Utah, and pegged the occupancy rate for those beds at 101 percent.
While there's a "tremendous unmet need" for substance abuse treatment, not everyone seeks help, said Brent Kelsey with the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
"Not all of those people are interested in coming in for services," Kelsey said. "But there's a huge unmet need."
The biggest barrier for people seeking treatment is the ability to pay for services, Kelsey said. If more people get insurance to pay for treatment, it's likely there will be an increase in patients, he said.
But along with that increase in demand, Kelsey said, there will be a growth in insurance companies and treatment providers to meet that need.
The influx of newly insured addicts would "certainly overwhelm our existing providers, but I think that there will be growth in providers," he said.
In addition to growth in the private sector, Kelsey said the state's public systems will be able to adapt to meet any increasing demand.
Patrick Fleming, Salt Lake County's director of Behavioral Health Services, said he thinks the county's system will be able to handle increased demand, which they've been anticipating.
Salt Lake, which is Utah's largest county, contracts out all of its substance abuse treatment programs, 90 percent of which involve outpatient treatment.
Salt Lake County will be working to make sure those contractors can handle increased demand, Fleming said.
Additionally, Fleming said he's anticipating many of those newly insured will be able to be treated by primary care physicians as opposed to substance abuse specialists or will fall under the umbrella of those who need to seek private insurance and the treatment options offered there.
"We feel pretty confident that we'll be able to handle that," Fleming said. "Between the private sector and the public sector, I think we'll be able to cover this."
Richard Nance, director of Utah County's substance abuse treatment program, said his county, too, has been working to anticipate increase in demand.
Utah County, which is the state's second largest county, directly provides services and contracts with providers. While the services directly provided by the county are operating at near capacity, the county can contract with providers that can handle any increase, Nance said.
That's something the county has been looking at recently, and he said providers have assured him they'll be able to handle extra patients to match the need.
Overall, it's unclear how many people in Utah will seek treatment, who will cover them, and whether the state will expand its Medicaid program. All of those factors could affect whether the system is strained or able to adapt, so it's hard to say what the net effect on Utah treatment services will be, Kelsey said
"I think that there are a lot of things that are still in play and it's still a fluid time," he said.
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