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Opioid epidemic has cost $1 trillion since 2001, says Altarum

The healthcare sector bore the brunt of about $216 billion of those costs -- and things may get worse.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

The opioid epidemic has been raging for years, and with no end in sight, that's bad news for the economy generally and the healthcare industry in particular. New research from nonprofit consulting firm Altarum shows the ongoing crisis has cost more than $1 trillion since 2001. And it's expected to get costlier.

Of that $1 trillion, about $216 billion of those costs have been borne by the healthcare sector. That's due largely to emergency room visits to treat and stabilize patients after an overdose, any associated ambulance and Naloxone use required, and related indirect healthcare costs associated with the increased risk of other diseases or complications.

[Also: House leaders ask insurers for help in combating opioid crisis]

A disproportionately large share of this cost has been saddling Medicaid in recent years. Since Medicaid expansion in 2014, the number of overdoses connected to uninsured patients has fallen substantially, but the burden to states in additional healthcare costs has increased.

More broadly, the greatest costs come from lost productivity, tax revenue and wages linked to overdose deaths -- about $800,000 per person, according to Altarum. Annual opioid addiction-related costs have swollen from just more than $29 billion in 2001 to about $115 billion 15 years later.

[Also: Trump declares opioid epidemic a public health emergency]

The uptick in recent years can be attributed partly to how the epidemic has transitioned away from older people to younger people, and from prescription opioids to illicit drugs. The number of opioid overdose deaths is estimated to have exceed 62,500 in 2017 based on data through June.

While the numbers are disheartening, Altarum researchers said there's value in understanding the scope of the problem, as interventions from that point on can be based on solid evidence.

To that end, the authors advocate certain policy recommendations, including prevention efforts centered around continued education for clinicians on the risks associated with opioids. Incentives to insurers to cover alternative pain treatments would also be beneficial, according to Altarum.

Other recommendations include working with payers to remove barriers to coverage for recovery treatment; and encouraging providers and community groups to work better together on support services.

Twitter: @JELagasse
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