The opioid abuse crisis is costing Missouri about $1.4 million an hour, or enough to wipe out the economic gains produced by the state’s agriculture, mining and utility industries, according to a study released this week.
The study by the Missouri Hospital Association considered health care, lost work productivity, substance abuse treatment and other costs for the thousands of Missourians who were addicted to opioids and the 921 who died of an opioid-related overdose in 2016. Using data from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the hospital association determined that the total cost of the opioid crisis in Missouri was more than $12 billion that year.
Mat Reidhead, the association’s vice president of research and analytics, said the report broke that staggering number down into an hourly figure and compared it to major industries to make it easier for the public to digest and understand.
“We really wanted to sort of frame the scope of the opioid crisis in Missouri in a way that would resonate with a really broad audience,” Reidhead said. “It’s just a huge problem.”
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Missouri ranked 15th nationally in percent of state gross domestic product, or GDP, being swallowed by opioids, at 4.2 percent, according to the hospital association’s analysis. Kansas ranked 43rd at less than 2 percent.
Susan Whitmore, an addiction treatment expert in Kansas City, said she wasn’t surprised by the dollar amounts.
“People who are struggling with opioid use disorder, there’s a cost in terms of them showing up at emergency room, but every trip to the emergency room usually involves a first responder being involved as well and there’s a high cost for ambulance, police, the fire department, whoever is intervening,” said Whitmore, the president and CEO of First Call, a nonprofit that directs people to addiction treatment and prevention services.
Whitmore also said the cost of the emergency drug that can stop an opioid overdose, naloxone, is soaring as more hospitals and first responders order it by the caseload.
Then, there’s the law enforcement and medical-examiner investigation costs and the addiction treatment costs.
Opioids are a particularly tough substance to come off, Whitmore said, because of what the drug does to brain receptors. Conquering addiction frequently requires a transition medication, like suboxone or methadone, and up to two years of outpatient counseling.
Skimping on either can have disastrous consequences. Whitmore said most overdoses happen after people leave inpatient treatment.
Whitmore and Reidhead both said progress is being made in reducing prescription opioids, which are what about three-fourths of addicts start on. But public costs will continue to mount because of the number of people who are already addicted and how easy it is for them to find cheap, illegal opioids on the street.
The solution, they said, is more money spent in smarter ways.
Reidhead said that although President Donald Trump recently declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, his budget asked Congress for an increase of only 2 percent in drug treatment dollars and proposed cutting drug abuse prevention programs.
“Emergencies require resources,” Reidhead said.
Whitmore said states and cities also have to be better at connecting drug treatment programs with courts, law enforcement, housing assistance and other support services that people need to stay clean.
“When we spend the dollars up front to create the systems that coordinate entities as opposed to us operating in silos, we do better on behalf of the people who need help,” Whitmore said, “and it lowers costs in the long run.”