Opioid Epidemic Burns a Hole in America's Pockets

Prescription opioid overdoses, abuse, and dependence places an economic burden on the US healthcare system.

With the prescription opioid epidemic continuing to spiral out of control, the economic burden on the healthcare system has cost an estimated total of $78.5 billion, according to a recent study.

Findings from a study published in Medical Care revealed that healthcare accounts for approximately one-third of costs attributable to the epidemic, while one-fourth are borne by the public sector.

“More than 40 Americans die each day from overdoses involving prescription opioids,” said Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the CDC. “Families and communities continue to be devastated by the epidemic of prescription opioid overdoses. The rising cost of the epidemic is also a tremendous burden for the health care system.”

In the analysis, researchers used data from a wide variety of sources to estimate the monetized burden of prescription opioid dependence, abuse, and overdose in the United States. The costs were analyzed from a societal perspective, which included costs related to loss productivity, costs to the criminal justice system, and direct healthcare costs.

The results of the analysis showed approximately 2 million Americans met the criteria for prescription opioid abuse and dependence in 2013. Furthermore, there were more than 16,000 deaths from prescription opioid overdoses in that same year. Both of these statistics were considerably higher than in 2007.

Aggregate costs for prescription opioid dependence, abuse, and overdose were estimated at more than $78.5 billion in 2013 dollars, according to the study. More substantially, the total spending for healthcare and substance abuse was more than $28 billion, $26 billion of which was covered by insurance.

For nonfatal cases, the costs for lost productivity, which included reduced productive hours and lost production for incarcerated individuals, was estimated at approximately $20 billion. Almost two-thirds of the total economic burden was due to healthcare, substance abuse treatment, and lost productivity for nonfatal cases.

Fatal overdoses, which included costs related to healthcare and lost productivity, accounted for $21.5 billion. Overall, about one-fourth of the aggregate economic burden was funded by public sources, including costs funded by public insurance and other government sources for substance abuse treatment.

The study also found that there was $7.7 billion in criminal justice-related costs, most of which were borne directly by state and local governments. Researchers also noted reduced tax revenues due to opioid-related productivity losses.

Some limitations to the study were that they could not measure all of the societal costs of the opioid epidemic, including the impact on quality-of-life for opioid-dependent individuals, or the pain and suffering family members endure who have lost a loved one from a fatal overdose.

“The costs that we can identify, however, do help increase our understanding of the impact of the epidemic,” the study authors wrote. “These estimates can assist decision makers in understanding the magnitude of adverse health outcomes associated with prescription opioid use such as overdose, abuse, and dependence.”