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Whitney Houston's tragic death puts spotlight on drug and alcohol addiction and treatment

While the cause of her death remains under investigation, pop singer Whitney Houston’s passing is just the latest in a long string of tragedies involving celebrities who have struggled with substance abuse issues. 

So many famous persons check into rehab that the struggle to overcome addiction has become a staple of prime-time television entertainment, with reality shows such as "Intervention" and "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew."

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Despite the public’s fascination with celebrities, the need for rehab spans all economic and social lines.

insurance for rehab"The face of addiction is the person in the office right next to you. People tend to think 'this will not happen to us,'" says Carol McDaid, a patient advocate and government relations specialist based in Washington, D.C. "Seventy percent of the people with addiction are working people.”

Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan can afford to pay for their own rehab, but what about you? If you have health insurance through work, you likely already have some level of coverage for substance-abuse treatment.

Health insurance for addiction treatment

McDaid supported the passage of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. The measure, in part, requires health insurance companies to put coverage limits for drug and alcohol treatment on par with medical treatment when it comes to group health plans for businesses of at least 50 employees, she says.

"It is not a mandate that all policies must provide mental health insurance [for addiction]. It says if a plan does cover alcoholic and drug and mental health, it must do so equally with other mental health conditions," McDaid says.

Most of the rehab coverage that’s available is provided through group insurance that one buys through a workplace. There is a very good chance that your group health insurance policy already has a benefit for addiction treatment. According to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 49 states and the District of Columbia have laws that mandate mental health coverage in group plans, "but these laws vary considerably."

Whether required or not, "most employer-based group health plans in the U.S. cover treatment for substance use disorders," says Dr. Doug Nemecek, a senior medical director for CIGNA. "Covered treatments include detoxification programs, individual and group outpatient-treatment programs, day programs, inpatient hospitalization, and longer-term residential treatment centers."

Few people can afford to pay for individual health insurance policies that have addiction-treatment coverage. "Most individual policies have extremely high premiums if they are going to cover this, or very few benefits," McDaid says.

Finding insurance for rehab

Tamra Walker, director of operations at Lasting Recovery, an outpatient treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction in San Diego, says the best way to make sure you receive adequate treatment is to shop for a policy with broad coverage.

The range of treatments for addiction "really is different on each policy," she says. "Some cover inpatient only. Some cover outpatient only. Some [cover] the full spectrum of treatment. It really is by the company and its policies. Someone who is getting insurance through their employer is really at the mercy of what the employer is offering. They may want to check with their human resources department to see if they can pay extra to get a wider range of services."

Walker cautions that if you already suffer from addiction and obtain a new group health insurance policy, you may have to sit out the policy’s waiting period before you can get coverage. If you buy an individual policy with substance-abuse coverage, your addiction could be excluded anyway as a pre-existing condition.

People who lack substance abuse coverage often rely on free 12-step recovery programs, says Bob Tyler, past president of the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors. While these programs can be effective, they do not provide the monitoring and guidance that often is necessary for a lasting recovery, he says.

The purpose of insurance is to help with the unexpected. When you’re shopping for health insurance coverage, whether individual or group, understand the drug and alcohol treatment provisions, even if you think you never will need them.

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