Inside The Massive Economic Impact Of The Opioid Crisis

By Kelly Burch 02/15/18

A new report estimates that the economic impact of each opioid overdose death is currently $800,000.

a money pit

The human impact of the opioid epidemic—from babies born dependent to an estimated 62,000 lives cut short in 2016 alone—has been tremendous. Now, a report shows that the economic impact has been just as shocking, with the drug crisis costing the U.S. economy $1 trillion since 2001. 

The report, released by Altarum, a nonprofit group that studies the health economy, found that opioid addiction is likely to cost the economy an additional $500 billion by 2020 if the current rates of addiction and overdose remain steady. 

The largest economic impact came from individuals who lost potential earnings due to addiction or an early death. The economic impact of each opioid overdose death was estimated at $800,000. 

"The average age at which opioid deaths are occurring—you're looking at something in the late 30s or early 40s," Corey Rhyan, a senior research analyst with Altarum's Center for Value and Health Care, told NPR. "As a result, you're looking at people that are in the prime of the productive years of their lives."

The federal government was impacted significantly due to lost tax revenue and increased costs for Medicaid and other services related to addiction and recovery, the report found. State and local governments were affected in similar ways. 

The report also looked at the different areas where the cost was spread. Lost productivity, either due to ongoing illness or death, was the largest cost area. That was followed by healthcare costs, both direct and indirect. Opioid-related healthcare costs were calculated to be $215.7 billion from 2001 to 2017, Altarum researchers found. 

Additionally, the criminal justice costs associated with drug use, funds for child and family assistance, and education costs all contributed to the final $1 trillion figure. 

Researchers wrote that understanding the economic impact of the opioid epidemic can help direct resources to fight the problem. 

“A cost estimate is valuable in understanding the scope of the problem, identifying areas of society most affected by it, and creating evidence-based interventions to address the issue,” they wrote. “As communities across the nation grapple with how best to respond to the crisis, such estimates can be a critical starting point for action.”

The report also acknowledged that focusing on the economic impact only reveals one aspect of the cost of opioid addiction across the country. 

“This analysis is concerned with the economic cost of the opioid crisis, but the human cost—the emotional toll on individuals with a use disorder, and that on their families and communities is substantial and vitally important to any complete analysis of the crisis,” the report's authors wrote. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.