One trillion dollars. That’s how much the country spent on the opioid epidemic between 2001 and 2017, according to a report released by the nonprofit institute Altarum, a consulting group focused on improving public health.

The cost of the crisis trickles both up and down and impacts corporations, governments and insurance companies, as well as families, local businesses and neighborhoods.

“The greatest cost comes from lost earnings and productivity from overdose deaths – estimated at $800,000 per person based on an average age of 41 among overdose victims,” the report states. “This figure is largely made up of lost wages of workers and productivity losses of employers, but it also weighs on government in the form of lost tax revenue. It has increased in recent years as the epidemic has transitioned away from older people to younger ones and from prescription opioids to illicit drugs.”

Opioid Epidemic Results in High Costs to Society

More than 42,000 deaths were caused by opioid overdoses in 2016, according to the U.S. surgeon general’s office. In 2010, the death toll was 21,000. The startling spike spurred the office to take action, with Dr. Jerome Adams issuing an advisory: “Be prepared. Get naloxone. Save a life.” Naloxone is an easily administered nasal spray that quickly reverses the deadly symptoms of an overdose.

“Health care costs related to the opioid crisis reached $215.7 billion from 2001 to 2017,” the report states. “This stemmed largely from emergency room visits to treat and stabilize patients after an overdose, any associated ambulance and Naloxone use required, and related indirect health care costs associated with the increased risk of other diseases or complications.”
And the costs have nowhere to go but up.

“An additional $500 billion is estimated through 2020 if current conditions persist,” the report states.

opioid epidemic

Governing magazine, a nonpartisan news outfit, reports that Middletown, Ohio, spent $1 million-plus on ambulance dispatches for overdoses between October 2016 and October 2017. It also reports that Pennsylvania will spend $5 million this year on naloxone alone. In Nebraska, the epidemic costs $465 per resident. In West Virginia, it costs $4,793 per resident.  The state has one of the highest rates of opioid overdoses in the country.

“The costs build up slowly over time, so you almost don’t even notice it,” Nashville lawyer Mark Chalos told the magazine in an article titled “How Much Is the Opioid Crisis Costing Governments?” “But when our people really started to dig into the budgets, they realized the costs are more significant.”

Geographic Factors in Opioid Epidemic

The American Enterprise Institute, a public-policy think tank, conducted a study on “The Geographic Variation in the Cost of the Opioid Crisis” and found the costs of the opioid epidemic are disproportionate at state and local levels, as exemplified by the Nebraska / West Virginia comparison.

“The types of costs attributable to opioid abuse – health care costs, criminal justice costs, and lost productivity, for example – are fairly well understood, as is the economic impact of the crisis at the national level,” the study states. “However, the economic burden of the opioid epidemic is unevenly distributed across the country, with many communities especially hard hit. As federal, state, and local policymakers and stakeholders seek to curb the epidemic, it is vitally important that they know how these costs are distributed.”

VSL – Value of a Statistical Life – A New Way to Measure Cost of Opioid Epidemic

Enter the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, or CEA. The federal agency compiled a paper in November 2017 that used a metric called the Value of a Statistical Life, or VSL, to gain insight into the costs of the opioid epidemic. The VSL essentially puts a price tag on one’s willingness to lower his or her death risk. It is helpful for shaping policies and programs that reduce fatalities.

“CEA finds that previous estimates of the economic cost of the opioid crisis greatly understate it by undervaluing the most important component of the loss – fatalities resulting from overdoses,” states the executive summary of the paper, titled “The Underestimated Cost of the Opioid Crisis.” “CEA estimates that in 2015, the economic cost of the opioid crisis was $504.0 billion, or 2.8 percent of GDP that year. This is over six times larger than the most recently estimated economic cost of the epidemic.”

The paper states that though this is the first of its kind to be published, it will not be the last.

“A better understanding of the economic causes contributing to the crisis is crucial for evaluating the success of various interventions to combat it,” it concludes. “CEA will conduct further economic analysis of actual and proposed demand- and supply-side interventions; consider the impact of public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid; and explore the important role of medical innovation in combatting the crisis.”