Opioid epidemic costs top $1T since 2001; Senate report says drugmakers paid kickbacks to advocacy groups

Hydrocodone opioid pills
Costs related to the opioid epidemic have skyrocketed since 2001. (Getty/smartstock)

The opioid epidemic has cost more than $1 trillion since 2001—an amount that is expected to continue to grow over the next several years. 

Altarum, a nonprofit health research and consulting institute, analyzed the cost of the opioid crisis in additional healthcare expenses and lost productivity, and it projects that the addiction epidemic will cost an additional $500 billion between 2017 and 2020 if the current mortality rate persists. 

The annual costs related to opioid addiction skyrocketed over the past 15 years, from $29.1 billion in 2001 to $115 billion in 2016, according to Altarum. The greatest costs come from lost productivity, wages and tax revenue related to overdose deaths, which the group estimates costs about $800,000 per person. 

Healthcare costs related to opioids grew by $215.7 billion between 2001 and 2017, a cost that is especially felt in Medicaid programs, according to the report. 

RELATED: 11.8M people misused opioids in 2016, federal report says 

A cost estimate like this, according to Altarum, can offer a starting point for solutions to address the epidemic. 

"A cost estimate is valuable in understanding the scope of the problem, identifying areas of society most affected by it and creating evidence-based interventions to address the issue," the report said. "As communities across the nation grapple with how best to respond to the crisis, such estimates can be a critical starting point for action." 

Altarum offers three policy recommendations based on its economic estimates: 

  1. Enhance prevention efforts. Policymakers should focus on continued education for clinicians on the risk associated with opioids and should create policies that provide incentives to insurers to cover alternative pain treatments.
  2. Ease access to addiction treatment. This would include working with payers to remove barriers to coverage for recovery treatment and encouraging providers and community groups to work better together on support services.
  3. Study the road to recovery. Having a more accurate blueprint of how long it takes opioid addicts to recover can enhance support services and improve patient access. 

Senate report: Opioid manufacturers paid kickbacks to patient advocacy groups 

Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a report (PDF) that dives into payouts made by five major pharmaceutical companies to patient advocacy groups that can influence opioid marketing. 

Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Mylan, Depomed and Insys Therapeutics paid nearly $9 million to 14 different groups that were working on opioid addiction and pain management between 2012 and 2017, according to the report. Several of those groups received much of their funding from opioid manufacturers in that five-year window. 

The report found that opioid messaging from the advocacy groups studied often offered a positive take on opioid use and amplified marketing from the pharmaceutical companies. For example, the American Academy of Pain Medicine in 2009 issued a patient guide that said "opioids are rarely addictive" when used appropriately for pain management, while accepting $1.2 million from opioid makers between 2012 and 2017. 

RELATED: Study finds even small gifts from pharmaceutical companies change prescribing habits 

The report also notes that these advocacy groups are not required to disclose their donors. None of the groups included in McCaskill's report offered an online source on their donors and donation numbers, and she called for legislative action to increase transparency. 

“The financial relationships between these groups and opioid manufacturers should be clear to the general public,” McCaskill said in a statement. “We passed a law ensuring the public had information on payments to doctors by pharmaceutical companies, and I can’t imagine why the same shouldn’t be done in this space.”