“If you went into a doctor's office and said, ‘I have heart disease or diabetes,' there's not a doctor that says, ‘I don't treat that, but there's a group that meets down the street three times a week,'” Foster said.
However, for a variety of reasons, many doctors aren't prepared to treat addiction, Foster said. For one, medical schools don't generally cover addiction thoroughly in their classes. Secondly, there aren't a set of nationally accepted standards for how doctors should treat addiction, she said.
Although almost half of Americans say they would go to their health care providers if someone close to them needed addiction treatment, less than 6 percent of all referrals to addiction treatment come from health professionals.
“Forty-four percent come from the criminal justice system, which tells you about our failure to treat this problem until it emerges into serious social consequences,” Foster said.
Foster said there are also huge gaps in insurance coverage. For example, some insurance providers structure their addiction treatment coverage on an acute care model. This means someone might be able to get one round of treatment covered. This model fails to see addiction as the chronic disease that it is.
Depression was once thought to be a character flaw because it was understood to be a chemical imbalance. Other diseases like cancer carried similar stigma, Foster said.
She said it's important to not get hung up on who is to blame for the disconnect between the science of addiction and the medical practices around it.
“I think the point here is not to go back and dig up who's to blame,” Foster said. “The point is to move forward and make sure people get the care they need.”