The opioid epidemic is unlike anything America has faced. The numbers surrounding the crisis of opioid addiction are sad and discouraging, but it is important to really look at them to understand just how bad the situation is.

Here is one sobering statistic. This year, the state of West Virginia used up its indigent burial fund five months before the fiscal year ended due to the high number of opioid overdose deaths.

It was only a few weeks ago that the President officially declared an opioid emergency in America, yet the problem has been building for years. Politicians have been absent from much of the dialog over opioid abuse, and it has largely fallen to families and local community resources to try to cope. One group of people that noticed the trend early was funeral directors. Opioid overdose deaths hit people of every economic background, and one New Jersey funeral home chain says that there are regularly multiple viewings going on simultaneously, all for opioid overdose victims.

Exploring the Total Costs of Opioid Addiction

Getting your arms around the cost of the opioid epidemic is hard because the costs ripple outward so dramatically. Non-fatal opioid usage was estimated to cost $72 billion in the year 2015, including costs for medical treatment, criminal justice system costs, and the productivity costs of lost labor.

As bad as this sounds, the Council of Economic Advisers to the White House just released a report saying the true cost of the opioid epidemic is almost an order of magnitude bigger: half a trillion dollars or more in the year 2015 alone. Costs associated with fatalities, incarceration, and non-fatal productivity loss affect not just individuals and the private sector, but also federal tax revenues, as well as tax revenues on the state and local level. And it is getting worse.

The Opioid Crisis Has Worsened

The opioid crisis was plenty bad in 2015, but it has worsened since then. Overdose deaths have doubled in the past decade, and show no signs of abating. Moreover, earlier accounting of opioid overdose death only counted fatalities blamed on prescription opioids like oxycontin, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone. The effects of the increased numbers of opioid-related deaths do not only affect the person with the addiction, but their families, friends, and co-workers. Putting a price on the damage is not easy, but it is clear that the cost is too high to bear and that something must change.

New Economic Models Also Consider the Costs of Illicit Opioids

Drug addiction

Lack of access to prescription opioids does not stop opioid use. It just leads to use of heroin.

One of the reasons earlier estimates of the costs of the opioid crisis may have under-represented the problem is because of the resurgence of heroin addiction. What happens is this. People develop a dependence on opioids, which may be prescribed for a solid medical reason, like an injury or recovery from surgery. Prescribing laws are stricter now than they used to be, causing prescriptions to be harder to acquire. As a result, street prices for opioids have gone up, and once they are no longer affordable to the person who has developed an abuse disorder, heroin is there to take over. Heroin is notoriously laced with dangerous compounds like fentanyl, which by itself can be deadly.

Collateral Damage Wrought by Opioids

Opioid abuse disorders have a huge and powerful effect on children, with children often paying the price for a parent’s lack of access to addiction treatment. In 2016 alone, spending on child and family assistance related to the opioid crisis was estimated at $6.1 billion. Prenatal exposure to opioids negatively affects infants, and children and teens with addicted parents may not have the care they need to thrive. Involvement with the child welfare system, while traumatic enough, is still better than the risks associated with growing up in a home where opioid abuse occurs. Collateral damage like accidental opioid poisonings in toddlers and preschoolers cause horrendous unnecessary suffering.

Benefits Expected from Addressing the Opioid Epidemic

Addiction treatment is the only way to address the opioid epidemic on a long-term basis. America has its work cut out for it, considering that currently, 91 people per day die of an opioid overdose. Addiction treatment is not easy, nor is it quick, but it works. Treatment techniques like medication-assisted treatment and treatment of co-occurring disorders like depression enable people to take control of their lives and recover from even serious opioid addiction.

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