What Rx Painkillers Cost the US

By Bryan Le 06/24/13

The numbers starkly illustrate the financial and human costs of the "opioid economy."

Rx painkillers are costing a pretty penny
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It's no secret that prescription opioid use—and abuse—has rapidly risen in recent years, and some new graphs from the New York Times illustrate the economic impact. Narcotic painkillers (containing opioids) are prescribed more than any other class of medications in the country, the Times points out, and prescriptions for the strongest ones (like OxyContin), have nearly quadrupled in the past decade. Between 2001 and 2012, opioid sales shot up 110% (from $3.97 billion to $8.34 billion) and prescriptions rose 33% (181.7 million to 240.9 million). Last week, a study showed that about 13% of the US population carry a prescription for opioid painkillers, which the author described as "a bit concerning considering their addicting nature." Hospitalizations for opioids (other than heroin) rose from 299,498 in 2004 to 885,348 in 2011, and deaths increased fourfold—from 4,030 in 1999 to 16,651 in 2010. Cracking down on the epidemic is also costing taxpayers—in 2010, only 16 states had databases in place to prevent people from getting more opioid prescriptions by visiting other doctors, but now 46 states implement these systems. Still, some people are making a profit: Between 2000 and 2013, the workplace drug-screening industry grew in size from $800 million to $2 billion. And in states where doctors can both prescribe and dispense medication, they're making a killing off marked-up pills—doctors in Illinois, for example, jacked up their painkiller prices by 66% between 2007 and 2011. Many hope that prescription drug take-backs and new treatment methods will alleviate the problem. But stricter controls on Rx painkillers have been linked to a spike in heroin use.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter