Massachusetts’ Billion-Dollar Substance Use Problem

The figure comes from a combination of expenses and lost labor, as well as money spent on hospital care, EMTs, early intervention for infants and families, jails and the job productivity forfeited by individuals and employers.

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Although $15.2 billion may seem astronomical, the report’s authors say it's a conservative estimate.

A new report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) shows that substance use disorder cost the state $15.2 billion in 2017. The report, according to WBUR, is the first to offer a thorough assessment of the economic damage caused by rising opioid use and deaths in Massachusetts.

Although $15.2 billion may seem astronomical, the report’s authors say it’s a conservative estimate. The figure comes from a combination of expenses and lost labor, as well as money spent on hospital care, EMTs, early intervention for infants and families, jails and the job productivity forfeited by individuals and employers. The authors said that the number is below actual because they couldn’t find data to measure some considerable costs.

According to WBUR, the report shows $1.9 billion of last year’s state budget was spent on the opioid epidemic across five areas: MassHealth; the departments of Public Health, Mental Health and Children and Families; and the larger criminal justice system. Employers, the report says, spent an additional $2.1 billion on opioid-related health care in 2017.

The largest single yearly cost identified in the report is lost productivity. The $9.7 billion total includes wages lost to absence, long-term impairment, or injury and death.

The MTF says the spending trends are even more alarming:

  • Emergency room visits tied to opioid use rose 24 percent every year between 2010 and 2015. These are the most recent years available for data.
  • Wages never paid to the men and women who’ve died after an overdose topped $1.1 billion for the past two years. That’s three times the loss in 2011.
  • Massachusetts’ gross state product is $64 billion short of where it would be, if not for the opioid epidemic.

The report lists some of the costs of the epidemic it did not calculate: future expenses tied to children placed in state care, the pain and suffering for families of those addicted to opioids, and the untold costs of opioid use that is not reported. The state’s leadership is taking the report seriously and plans to apply its findings to future planning around the epidemic.

Governor Charlie Baker said, “While some progress is being made through initiatives like the implementation of the MassPAT prescription monitoring program, increased availability of naloxone, and a greater focus on tools like recovery coaches, there is still a lot of work left to do and we look forward to incorporating important data and analysis from this Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report into our daily work to stem the tide of this public health epidemic.”

There have been other attempts to calculate the economic impact of the opioid epidemic, but these are largely national reports, not state-specific estimates. The MTF says it hopes other states use and adjust this analysis to understand their own costs derived from the epidemic. According to WBUR, the findings may be used in the AG’s complaint against Purdue Pharma, which alleges the company’s marketing of the opioid Oxycontin violated Massachusetts consumer protection law.

In a statement, state Attorney General Maura Healey said, “This comprehensive report brings a unique look into the economic and fiscal impacts of this devastating crisis on our state, and shows that while our efforts are making a difference—we have much more work to do.”

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