White House: Opioid Crisis Cost 6 Times More Than Estimated

By Paul Fuhr 11/22/17

A report by White House economists says the financial toll of the epidemic is around a half-trillion dollars.

President Donald Trump

The White House announced on Monday that the true cost of America’s opioid crisis is much higher than experts projected.

According to The Guardian, the epidemic cost the country $504 billion in 2015—a figure that’s nearly a half-trillion U.S. dollars, or 2.8% of the GDP. An eye-opening report released by the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) contended that the epidemic’s cost “is more than six times larger than the most recent estimate.”

The council cited a separate report that pegged “prescription opioid overdose, misuse and dependence” at $78.5 billion. (Much of the cost comes in the form of health care, criminal justice and lost productivity, the report indicated.) The council was also quick to defend its math, stating that its initial estimates were wrong because the epidemic itself has worsened.

With overdose deaths doubling over the past decade and many studies not even factoring in illicit opioids such as heroin, the council argued that it was difficult, if not impossible, to establish an accurate estimate of the cost.

“Previous estimates of the economic cost of the opioid crisis greatly underestimate it by undervaluing the most important component of the loss—fatalities resulting from overdoses,”The Guardian said of the White House report. And while President Trump announced that opioid abuse constituted a national public health emergency, very little action has actually taken place since the press conference. Trump’s plan called for “really tough, really big, really great advertising,” which many critics derided as too similar to Nancy Reagan’s infamous 1980s-era “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.

Still, Trump’s own opioid commission agreed with the strategy (as well as offering dozens of additional suggestions to combat the epidemic), even as other experts described the plan as everything from “toothless” to dangerously unspecific. Trump didn’t direct any public funding toward the opioid crisis, either.

The New York Times even suggested that the lack of action can be attributed to Trump “discovering the realities of limited government resources, slow-moving agencies and the competing agendas of cabinet members, even as they try to push in the same general direction.” 

As the U.S. stares down a half-trillion dollar problem, the suggestions of Trump’s opioid crisis commission come even further under the microscope. Among the commission’s 53 suggestions are tighter prescribing guidelines for doctors, expanded drug courts, and allowing emergency responders to administer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. At this point, however, attention is pretty much all Trump has given the crisis. He hasn’t put any of the recommendations into motion, nor has he requested funds beyond the nation’s public health emergency fund to attack the epidemic.

The problem is that fund’s balance sits at a paltry $57,000, as confirmed by Forbes.

When spread across every American in the country, it amounts to roughly two cents per person. Congress began the fund in 1983 with only $30 million, but still hasn’t added anything since 1993. Even worse, since Trump’s 2018 federal budget passed, there will be even less money to work with: it will slash billions from the CDC, FDA and NIH, among other departments that can help combat the drug epidemic.

The 13-page CEA report promises that it won’t be the last analysis of its kind. In fact, they believe that answers to the crisis lie in the numbers around it. “A better understanding of the economic causes contributing to the crisis is crucial for evaluating the success of various interventions to combat it,” the report argued, noting that the council will continue to dive deep into the root causes behind a problem that’s been getting worse by the day.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.