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Finding and Treating Alcohol Problems

If detected early, alcohol problems can be effectively treated in ways that are less costly and prevent illness that is more serious. Confidential alcohol screenings can be conducted in the workplace (for instance, as part of an employee assistance program, or EAP) or in a healthcare setting such as a physician’s office or the emergency room. Research has shown that a series of short counseling sessions, called brief interventions, can help drinkers reduce their alcohol consumption, reduce the health and other risks that stem from drinking, and save money on healthcare costs. These alcohol-focused interventions can be delivered over the course of five or fewer routine office visits and take just 15 minutes or less

Understanding Alcohol Treatment

When a person has problems with alcohol, it is not just his or her health and well-being that is affected; alcohol problems also take a toll on the drinker’s family, coworkers, employer and community. Nearly 85,000 lives are lost each year to the effects of alcohol use, either through diseases associated with alcohol consumption or through accidents, including car crashes, falls, and drowning. One of every 13 adults has a serious problem with alcohol, and more than half of all American adults have a close family member who is alcohol dependent or has a history of alcoholism. Alcohol-related problems cost every man, woman and child in the United States roughly $683 in lost productivity, healthcare expenditures to treat alcoholism and other medical consequences, alcohol-related car crashes and alcohol-related crime.

Early detection of alcohol problems, adequate treatment for alcohol abuse and dependence, and support for recovery can save lives and reduce the social, emotional and financial burdens associated with problem drinking.

Treating Alcohol Problems

Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, is a chronic disease. People who are alcohol dependent may require more intensive treatment than brief intervention. They likely will need assistance that is tailored to their individual needs. As with other chronic diseases like diabetes or hypertension, a variety of treatment strategies exist:

  • Detoxification helps individuals through withdrawal and is often the first step toward treatment. People with severe dependence on alcohol may need medication and close medical management during detoxification, sometimes requiring brief hospitalization.
  • Psychological therapies, such as social skills training, motivational enhancement, cognitive therapy, marriage and family counseling, aversion therapy and relaxation training, can be effective in treating alcoholism.
  • Providing appropriate services for other problems, including drug addiction, depression, unemployment and domestic violence, gives people with alcoholism a better chance of achieving long-term recovery.
  • Outpatient treatment works best for people with strong social support systems and without other medical or mental health problems. People with other disorders in addition to alcoholism and/or lack of strong social support may do better if they are treated in a hospital.
  • Medications, such as naltrexone, can be very helpful in treating alcoholism.
  • Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other voluntary recovery organizations, can help some alcoholics recover without medical treatment.

Barriers to Accessing Treatment

Despite the variety of options available for addressing problem drinking and treating alcoholism, getting needed treatment can be difficult. Most employment-based health insurance plans cover some type of alcohol treatment services, but often carry serious limitations and restrictions, including:

  • Limiting the number of days that patients can receive inpatient care and the number of outpatient visits.
  • Setting copayments for alcohol treatment that are higher than those for treating other illnesses.
  • Not providing coverage for intensive outpatient treatment.
  • Providing little coverage for the coordination of care between specialty and primary care providers.

Solving Alcohol Problems

The lost productivity, health care expenditures, employee turnover and worker’s compensation claims associated with alcohol problems can cost businesses big money. Yet the cost of significantly improving health care coverage for alcohol problems is small. According to a study by the RAND Corporation, the cost of removing barriers to alcohol treatment services amounts to only pennies a month. In addition, actuarial estimates by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) suggest that upgrading employment-based health insurance coverage would increase premiums by 0.2 percent. For more information on what employers can do to help solve alcohol problems, go to "What Employers Can Do".


Many national and local resources can offer help for alcohol problems.

  • The National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service provides a toll-free telephone number, 1-800-662-HELP. Through this service you can speak directly to a representative concerning substance abuse treatment, request printed material on alcohol or other drugs, or obtain local substance abuse treatment referral information in your state.
  • A searchable directory of licensed, certified and otherwise approved federal, state, local and private treatment facilities is provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in its Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator.
  • The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) maintains a website ( and toll-free telephone number (1-800-622-2255) where you can find local information and referral services.
  • offers a free screening tool for alcohol problems as well as resources for finding alcohol treatment and support in your community.
  • Alcohol treatment facilities and programs are available in most communities and can be located directly through the local telephone book, through local public health or substance abuse agencies, or by physician or other health care provider referral.