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Opioid Drugs

Calculating the Real Cost of the Opioid Crisis

— November 21, 2019

Agency estimates the real cost of the opioid epidemic, beyond just financial loss.

Financially, the opioid crisis has crippled the U.S. economy.  In fact, the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) estimates the cost of the epidemic to have been “$696 billion in 2018, or 3.4 percent of GDP, and more than $2.5 trillion for the four-year period from 2015 to 2018.”  In 2017, CEA issued a report which calculated the total cost by considering the “value of lost lives, as well as increases in healthcare and substance abuse treatment costs, increases in criminal justice costs, and reductions in productivity.”  The updated estimates for 2018 were calculated using a similar methodology, which includes human lives lost.

The CEA estimates are on the high side compared to other studies, because CEA accounts for the value of a statistical life (VSL).  It uses this comprehensive measure because the opioid crisis is so much more than lost finances.  It takes lives, which the CEA values well beyond the drugs’ effect on economic output.

Due to provisions set forth by the Trump administration, the CEA estimates nearly “30,000 lives were saved from January 2017 through March 2019” and that “the cost of the opioid crisis would have been $326 billion higher between January 2017 and March 2019” had this focus not been put into place.

Calculating the Real Cost of the Opioid Crisis
Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

The agency believes viable solutions included increased treatment access and funding, more focused educational measures concerning the dangers of opioid use, and improved security to stop the flow of illicit drugs to U.S. streets.  In 2018, Congress passed, and President Trump signed, the SUPPORT Act addressing these needs.

“In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, $6 billion in new funding was secured to fight opioid abuse, including to expand access to medication-assisted treatment,” according to reports.  The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) contends “the number of Americans receiving medication-assisted treatment rose 38 percent, from approximately 921,000 to 1.27 million.”

There has been a nearly “one-third decline” in the total amount of opioids prescribed due to efforts outlined in the SUPPORT act to improve education, and close to “60 percent less young adults between the ages of 18 and 25” began using heroin in 2018 than in 2016.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) nationwide seizures of fentanyl “are up 265 percent over the last three fiscal years,” the agency reported, and the “CBP seized enough fentanyl in fiscal year 2019 to support 10,000 fentanyl users for more than 200 years, based on typical usage.”  Overdose deaths in the hardest hit states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania are also on the decline.  As of March 2019, looking back one year, these fatalities had “decreased 23 percent in these areas.”

Despite these subtle improvements, the U.S. still has a long way to go and the crisis is far from over.  Fentanyl continues to be a major problem with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting “synthetic opioids accounted for nearly 60% of opioid-involved overdose deaths in the United States in 2017.”  There has also been “an increase in deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, MDMA and methylphenidate.”  The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports, “Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids.  The misuse of and addiction to opioids —including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl — is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”


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