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05/09/2016 / By Greg White
It’s no secret that the country is experiencing an opioid epidemic. Sketching a picture of the problem at hand, a recent study published in Health Affairs found that the number of patients hospitalized because of opioids between 2002 and 2012 skyrocketed by 72 percent, and that in patient charges related to opioid hospitalizations reached a whopping $15 billion in 2012.
The researchers reviewed patients from 2002 to 2012 who were hospitalized for abusing either heroin or prescription drugs, and how many of them got major infections due to their drug use. They also reviewed which hospitals charged to treat these patients and how they were paid.
“The growing problem of opioid abuse in the United States has been well documented, but our study is the first of its kind to quantify serious infections related to opioid abuse and their impact on the U.S. hospital system and on health care costs,” said co-author Shoshana Herzig, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS).
The team found that the number of hospitalizations for opioid dependence or use exponentially grew from around 302,000 in 2002 to around 520,000 in 2012. Within that time frame, the number of patients who had dangerous infections, including endocarditis and septic arthritis, jumped from nearly 3,400 to 6,535. These figures are expected to grow, as opioid abuse isn’t expected to wane anytime soon.
To add insult to literal injury, the researchers found that hospitals charged a staggering $15 billion for opioid-related in patient care, more than twice the amount charged in 2002, even after adjusting for inflation. An estimated $700 million of these charges went to treating patients with related infections. Many of these patients were either uninsured or on Medicaid.
“We’re certainly seeing the bad outcomes of IV drug use, whether that’s death or hospitalization. It’s a pretty destitute population and a population that doesn’t have a lot of resources. You can only imagine that the bills are going to be huge,” said the study’s main author, Matthew Ronan.
An estimated 28,000 people died due to opioid overdoses in 2014, putting opioid-related deaths at an all time high. Researchers believe easy access to drugs like heroin and prescription drugs is fueling the epidemic.
The average hospital visit for an opioid abuse patient costs around $28,000 in 2012. A mere 20 percent of charges related to opioid abuse were covered by private insurance companies, the team discovered. The number rose to $107,000 whenever their was an associated infection, with about 14 percent covered by insurance companies.
The team was able to obtain these figures by searching through 2002 to 2012 data used by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality for its Cost Utilization Project. It is possible the price tag attached to treating people for opioid related hospitalizations exceeded $15 billion.
“The total cost of opioid-related hospitalizations has increased out of proportion to the rate of increase in the number of hospitalizations for these conditions,” noted Ronan in a press release. “Further research is needed to investigate the factors underlying the exponentially rising costs associated with these inpatient stays.
“The downstream consequences of opioid abuse and dependence, including serious infection, are severe — for individual patients and their loved ones, caregivers, hospital systems and the federal government,” added Herzig. “A commitment to decreasing access to opioids, early treatment, and preventive strategies will be vital to decrease the burden of disease and cost to the health care system and society.”
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