Connecting state and local government leaders

The Opioid Epidemic Has Cost the U.S. More Than $1 Trillion


Connecting state and local government leaders

Most of the financial cost of the crisis came in the form of lost earning and productivity potential for those who had died.

The opioid epidemic has now cost the United States more than one trillion dollars since 2001, a new study finds. And, the research shows that costs will only grow if current conditions persist. Another $500 billion is expected to be lost through 2020 if the crisis doesn’t improve.

The study, carried out by Altarum, a nonprofit health research and consulting institute, found that the bulk of the financial cost of the crisis came in the form of lost earnings and productivity due to overdose deaths—which the findings estimated at $800,000 per per person. The researchers also included lost tax revenue to state and local governments in that figure.


The study notes that the productivity-related losses have gone up in recent years as the death toll from the epidemic skews younger. Younger people who die as a result of a drug overdose lose more years of earnings potential.

The health care costs of the epidemic have not been insubstantial. From 2001 to 2017, $215.7 billion was spent largely on emergency room visits to treat and stabilize overdose patients. The report also notes that a disproportionate share of the burden of these costs was shouldered by Medicaid in recent years. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, fewer overdose patients are uninsured, but the amount that states spend on associated health costs has increased.


Altarum recently carried out a similar approach to analyzing the costs associated with the crisis on a smaller scale in Lorain County, Ohio, a suburban jurisdiction west of Cleveland with an opioid overdose rate that is 2.5 times the national average, according to 2016 data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The analysis in Lorain County found that the “downstream economic burden of the crisis” was nearly $200 million in 2016 alone. According to Altarum, carrying out that study—which also found that relatively little was actually being spent on treatment and prevention efforts—helped the county identify the scope of the problem and craft evidence-based solutions.

Quinn Libson is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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