$95 Billion to be Gained from Wiping Out the Opioid Epidemic, Says Study

by Chris Clancy

November 17, 2017

Eliminating the most negative effects of the opioid epidemic—the overdoses, deaths, lost days on the job, extra police work, and needed substance abuse treatments—would result in overall savings of $95 billion, according to a study by Altarum, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based nonprofit specializing in healthcare research.

The estimated $95 billion figure was reached after analyzing 2016 data related to drug overdose death counts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as U.S. Census Bureau figures, studies by the U.S. Department of Justice, and estimates from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, among others.

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Using this data, Altarum created two main categories of impact: reductions in costs related to responding or mitigating opioid-related incidents (including police arrests, hospital emergency room visits, and addiction treatment programs) and recovered economic benefits, such as wages and income tax gained through the lives saved.

“These benefits—including savings to governments and increases in economic returns to households and the private sector—would accrue to all of society,” wrote healthcare research analyst Corey Rhyan, author of the study.

State and federal governments spent or lost an estimated $42.7 billion over the course of 2016 on things like healthcare, police protection, child and family assistance programs, and education expenditures. Medicaid alone burned through $8.7 billion last year in opioid-related health incidents.

“Due to demographic and regional characteristics of the opioid crisis… Medicaid pays for a much larger proportion of [opioid] overdose costs,” the study said. “Since Medicaid expansion in 2014, the number of overdoses connected to uninsured patients has fallen substantially, with much of the burden picked up by Medicaid.”

Private Sector Would Gain the Most

The individual and private sector left more than $46 billion on the table in 2016 due of the opioid epidemic. Altarum reached this figure by multiplying the estimated 53,054 lives lost to opioids in 2016 with an estimated $800,000 per person, via federal, state, and local income taxes brought in, as well as wages earned over the course of a couple of decades’ worth of employment eligibility. (The study claims that the national average age of death by opioid overdose is 41, though other sources have it higher.)

“The first step in taking action is to understand the enormous benefit of eliminating the opioid crisis,” said Altarum CEO Linc Smith, in a press release. “Only then will we allocate the appropriate funding to empower local governments, health providers, and community-based organizations to reduce its toll.”

President Trump last month called the opioid epidemic “a national public health emergency,” a move that falls just short of declaring it a national emergency, which would have authorized Congress to replenish the Public Health Emergency Fund. Since then, his Commission to Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released a list of more than 50 recommendations, including an expanded drug court system, educational requirements for opioid prescribers, and eliminating pain evaluations from hospital patient satisfaction surveys.

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