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Cost Of U.S. Opioid Epidemic Since 2001 Is $1 Trillion And Climbing

A young man uses heroin under a bridge where he lives in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, a neighborhood that has become a hub for heroin use. The economic costs of the epidemic are mounting, researchers say, as the U.S. loses more and more workers in their prime.

The opioid epidemic has cost the U.S. more than a trillion dollars since 2001, according to a new study, and may exceed another $500 billion over the next three years.

The report by Altarum, a nonprofit group that studies the health economy, examined CDC mortality data through June of last year. The greatest financial cost of the opioid epidemic, according to the report, is in lost earnings and productivity losses to employers. Early deaths and substance abuse disorders also take a toll on local, state and federal government through lost tax revenue.

These costs are rising. One reason for the increase, says Corey Rhyan, a senior research analyst with Altarum's Center for Value and Health Care, is that more young people are being affected as the epidemic moves from prescription opioids to illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

"The average age at which opioid deaths are occurring — you're looking at something in the late 30s or early 40s," Rhyan says. "As a result, you're looking at people that are in the prime of the productive years of their lives."

Health care expenses linked to the crisis — more than $215 billion since 2001 — have been significant, too, the report suggests. Those expenses stem largely from emergency room visits, ambulance costs and the use of naloxone, a drug used to stop and reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

The Altarum researchers say the growth in costs between 2011 and 2016 was double the rate of the previous five years, and is projected to keep rising steeply unless there's a comprehensive and sustained national response.

Congress is considering spending $6 billion over the next two years to address the national crisis. In his budget, President Trump is proposing $13 billion in new spending on opioids, but that's partially offset by cuts in other healthcare programs like Medicaid.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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