‘I don’t want to see a dozen people die.’ A restaurateur’s effort to fight suicide and drug abuse
Substance abuse disorders impact the hospitality industry more than any other. In fact, according to a 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, we rank first for illicit drug use and third for heavy alcohol use.
This will surprise no one who works in restaurants. In my many years in the industry, I’ve seen colleagues tragically succumb to addiction and drug abuse, leaving behind family members, loved ones and children.
We work in the hospitality industry because we have a passion for serving others — sometimes at the expense of caring for ourselves. With support from the community, we created the “I Got Your Back” project to remedy this. “I Got Your Back” lowers the stigma in talking about mental health, empowering more of us to improve our lives. Change is happening, but it’s time for the Legislature to help address this crisis.
Senate Bill 11 by Senator Jim Beall would require health plans to provide access to medication-assisted treatment in a timely manner, removing existing bureaucratic hurdles for patients in need. Passage of this bill is critical in our comprehensive battle against substance abuse disorders.
Why is it needed? Medication-assisted treatment has proven effective for those suffering from addiction. It uses FDA-approved medications to lessen withdrawal symptoms and cravings. These medications help stabilize patients so they can more successfully pursue recovery through behavioral therapies. It works.
Unfortunately, access to treatment is severely lacking in California, even though it’s been 10 years since the signing of the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act – and more than 40 years since California’s Knox-Keen Health Care Service Plan Act. Both of these laws require health plans to provide coverage of mental health under the same terms and conditions applied to other medical conditions.
Yet 40 percent of private health insurance patients can’t get this treatment when they need it due to bureaucratic barriers. Overall, less than 11 percent of patients who could benefit from medication-assisted treatment actually have access to it, despite the overwhelming evidence of its positive impact on recovery goals.
We can no longer stand by and watch our co-workers, friends and family become sicker, and even lose their lives, because they can’t get necessary treatment.
In addition to the grave personal costs of substance abuse, lack of timely and appropriate treatment also poses a threat to our economy. Workplace costs as a result of substance abuse, including missing work, poor performance and workplace accidents, are estimated at $81 billion every year. Many good jobs in my industry and others go unfilled because qualified employees can’t work due to their untreated addictions.
To help address this problem, I’ve been working with health plans and mental health organizations to create a safety net for restaurant workers affected by substance abuse and mental health issues. This includes creating a support program in my own restaurant and developing a broader network for restaurant workers who need help. We are hopeful these efforts will lead to a reduced stigma, more people seeking care and more people getting the medical and behavioral treatment they need to succeed in recovery.
In an encouraging sign, Medi-Cal has recognized the need for timely access to medication-assisted treatment and has removed prior-authorization restrictions for counties that participate in its Narcotic Treatment Program. Congress even passed the SUPPORT Act recently to ensure all patients covered by state Medicaid programs have access to FDA-approved treatments.
With these changes to Medi-Cal and Medicaid, more patients seeking treatment will have a better shot at successful recovery. Now it’s time for private health plans in California to follow suit. Passage of SB 11 will ensure that they do.