Opioid epidemic generates multiple costs, says expert

John Deskins, director of the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research, discusses the economic impact the opioid crisis has had on West Virginia during an academic media day event Monday at the university. (Photo by John McCabe)

MORGANTOWN — Current medical and criminal justice costs incurred in fighting the national opioid crisis represent just the tip of the iceberg, says one research expert.

In addition to health care costs, such as substance abuse treatment, and the costs incurred in processing an illegal drug user in the judicial system, there are also indirect economic costs, such as lost economic productivity of workers, said John Deskins, associate professor of economics and director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University.

“There’s obviously health care costs when people overdose, and drug treatment costs, and criminal justice costs,” said Deskins during WVU’s “Academic Media Day” held Monday at the Erickson Alumni Center in Morgantown. “And there’s also lost productivity — people who are taking drugs are not as productive at work.”

Deskins was one of seven university experts to speak during the WVU’s day-long symposium focused on research devoted to aspects of the country’s drug addiction crisis.

According to Deskins, there’s also an indirect economic cost to the overall national or individual state economy in terms of resources used to fight substance addiction — syphoning off economic resources that could be used elsewhere.

Using a national database culled over the last decade as a guide, Deskins estimated there are 4,318 West Virginia jobs earmarked to fighting opioid addiction.

“If it were not for the opioid crisis — if we didn’t have people in the criminal justice system, people in health care, doctors, people in substance abuse treatment — if we didn’t devote time to those areas, we would have more than 4,300 jobs out there freed up to work in other problem areas in West Virginia,” Deskins said.

Translating that indirect economic cost into dollars, Deskins said there would an estimated $322 million in economic output available to invest in other economic activities in the state.

“There would be more than $300 million in economic productivity that could be devoted to other parts of the (West Virginia) economy — if that productive capacity were not tied up by the opioid crisis,” Deskins said.

Deskins also estimated the loss in economic productivity caused by drug users who still hold jobs in West Virginia totals an estimated $190 million.

“These are folks that are addicted to opioids, but who are still living, and many whom are still working,” Deskins said.

“People who are addicted are not as good at their jobs anymore,” Deskins said. “As a result, we are foregoing a $190 million economic output.”

According to Deskins, that $190 million in economic output actually also has a multiplier effect on the overall economy.

“If you put $190 million into your economy, it creates more (economic) spin,” Deskins said. “If a business has $190 million in economic output, it has to buy economic input, to buy labor, and workers have additional income to place into the economy; it provides a multiplier effect.”

Deskins said $190 million in lost economic activity translates into an estimated additional 1,200 additional jobs that are ultimately lost in West Virginia’s economy as the result of lost worker productivity.

In addition to non-productive workers, Deskins said West Virginia has also incurred economic productivity losses from the estimated 6,000 state workers who died from a drug overdose.

“Ultimately, we’re talking about 10,000 jobs that do not any longer exist, or that are tied up in battling the opioid crisis over the last decade,” Deskins said.