Newspaper article News Sentinel

Substance Abuse - Facing the Costs

Newspaper article News Sentinel

Substance Abuse - Facing the Costs

Article excerpt

"These folks are losing their education, losing their ability to work productively. That's a huge, huge loss."

Teresa Waters

chair of preventive medicine at University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center

Substance abuse annually costs Tennessee more than $2 billion - more than half of which is attributed to lost income from people who have fallen out of the the labor market, according to an economist.

The substance abuse epidemic - most notably involving opioids - raises questions about access to treatment, how to stem the illicit use of prescription painkillers and staunch the use of illegal drugs.

But the economic impact is less understood and not generally a component of policy discussions.

Teresa Waters, chair of preventive medicine at University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center who leads a policy research group, dug into the costs associated with substance abuse.

The $2 billion cost to Tennessee includes:

$46 million for babies born in the state with neonatal abstinence syndrome,

$422.5 million for hospitalizations associated with opioid abuse, and

$138 million for hospitalizations with alcohol listed as the first diagnosis.

But, at $1.29 billion, the lost income from having an estimated 31,000 people, or 1 percent of the workforce, out of jobs is the biggest component.

Waters expected the economic impact to be sizable but was still surprised by the final tally - especially given the decision to take a conservative approach to the analysis.

"When I put it all together, I was like, 'wow.' It's striking. It's a wake-up call that this is not just a sad story. This is an economic story," said Waters.

Epidemic brings higher medical, jail costs, drops work productivity

Waters started her analysis after talking with Dr. David Stern, vice-chancellor for clinical affairs for the University of Tennessee's College of Medicine and the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center.

Stern wants to create a program for new physicians to be trained in addiction medicine, and wanted to put the cost of his proposal in context with what abuse costs the state.

Waters said she took a conservative approach to the analysis so the overall economic impact and state spending is likely higher. In fact, she didn't include costs associated with substance abuse overdoses because of debate over how to estimate economic impact from early loss of life.

"I don't think this is completely comprehensive. It's really the most obvious areas," said Waters.

Nationally, the opioid epidemic cost the U.S. economy more than $504 billion in 2015, the White House's Council of Economic Advisers projected in a November study.

In most states there is a dearth of qualified physicians with training in addiction medicine - and there are expensive ramifications, said John Donahue, CEO of Axial Healthcare, a start-up in Nashville that works with insurers to identify over-prescription and people at risk for addiction. …

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