Joint Economic Committee Puts $1.5 Trillion Price Tag on Opioid Crisis

A new congressional report puts a $1.5 trillion dollar price tag on the opioid crisis in 2020. The estimate underscores the need for further federal investment in substance use disorder (SUD) treatment. It also highlights the important role that opioid use disorder (OUD) operators play in curbing this crisis.

The report, released by the Joint Economic Committee, found that opioid-related costs increased by $487 billion from 2019 to 2020. Without action, it also suggests numbers may continue to snowball.

“[G]iven the scale of the crisis, more funding and action across federal, state and local government is needed to better address the crisis at hand,” the report’s authors argued.

Photo credit: Joint Economic Committee

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sharp increase in the number of opioid-related overdose deaths. The CDC recorded 50,178 opioid-related deaths in 2019, 69,061 in 2020 and 80,926 in 2021.

“While this analysis does not forecast the economic cost of the opioid epidemic for 2021, the rise in fatal opioid overdoses in 2021 suggests the total cost is likely to continue to increase,” report authors continued. “In addition, the methodology used to produce the totals above involves some uncertainty that likely makes the national cost estimate a lower-bound on the true economic cost of the epidemic in a given year.”

The pandemic also meant that more behavioral health services were remote. This may have impacted care for patients who needed more in-person care, according to the Joint Economic Committee.


Additionally, the pandemic increased rates of loneliness, stress and other mental health issues, which impacted the rate of substance use.

“Additionally, the disruption around the pandemic meant that some users turned to new dealers, who were more likely to sell them fentanyl due to changes in drug smuggling patterns,” the committee wrote. “Because fentanyl is such a potent drug and is sometimes present in drug supplies without users’ knowledge, this shift increased the likelihood of overdose among people using opioids.”

The committee highlighted a stark disparity in overdose deaths between Black and white Americans. A lack of access to addiction treatment, barriers to affordable health care and evidence-based treatment have led to the inequities.

“Although opioid use is more common among white Americans, Black adults and teens experienced a steeper increase in the rate of fatal opioid overdoses compared to their white counterparts over the last decade,” the committee wrote.

The Biden administration has been actively investing in growing the substance use disorder workforce and treatment options. Last week, the White House announced a $1.6 billion investment into community programs aimed at addressing the addiction and overdose crisis.

The Joint Economic Committee calls for additional federal funding for OUD treatment programs.

“While recent policy commitments are important steps, the $1.5 trillion annual cost highlighted in this brief suggests the size and scope of the government’s response must be significantly larger,” the authors wrote. “The federal government should address barriers to health care and expand access to evidence-based treatment by continuing a shift towards a ‘treatment instead of punishment’ approach that prioritizes medical treatment and support services over incarceration.”

The commission also recommended increasing Medicaid benefits to address the OUD crisis.

“One additional step to support treatment would be for the 12 states that have yet to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to do so, as Medicaid expansion is associated with reduced fatal opioid overdoses through greater access to treatment,” the committee wrote.

Among the group of companies focused on OUD is Landmark Recovery, Aware Recovery and Spero Health.

All three have plans to expand in the future. Landmark Recovery is quickly growing its footprint. It started 2022 with 8 facilities and is planning to have 16 by the end of the year, and 40 by the end of 2023.

Spero Health is also planning for growth. It will open 24 new recovery centers this year, and another 24 centers next year if not more, according to Spero CEO Steve Priest.

Aware Recovery, which currently operates in 10 states, raised $22 million in Series A funding.

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