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West Virginia consistently has one of the worst rates of drug overdose deaths in the nation, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that toll has only been increasing in recent years. The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy released a report on the economic toll of drug-related deaths and illnesses on the state. The center estimates that in 2019, that amount was more than $11 billion.
June Leffler spoke with one of the report’s authors, Jill Kriesky.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Leffler: Jill, your report estimates the cost of the drug crisis in West Virginia at $11.3 billion for the year of 2019. And $1.7 billion for Kanawha County specifically. You looked at fatality and non-fatality costs. Can you start by telling me what are the costs that a community incurs when someone dies?
Kriesky: So what it is, is an estimate of what that person would have earned had they continued to live. If that person isn’t there, he or she is not earning money to contribute to the state’s economy, or on a smaller scale to their family’s well being.
Leffler: So while fatality costs make up a huge portion of the costs incurred due to the drug crisis, there are non-fatality costs too. Give me a sense of what those entail?
Kriesky: People who are using drugs incur costs from healthcare, law enforcement, and from social services in a given year. Non-fatality costs are quite a bit less, because people who are using drugs may continue to work, they have the potential to earn income. So it is a much smaller piece. But with that said, even the people who develop these estimation processes say if you’re going to try to look at what it costs, to have people using drugs, you shouldn’t just look at one year, you should look at the lifetime cost. So for example, we know that there are a number of people who contract HIV or hepatitis C. And at least with HIV, there are lifetime costs of well over $400,000 to treat that person. But all that would show up in this estimate is the cost of treating them in that one year you’re looking at.
Leffler: The report also makes a good point that it’s not just that individual person who is incurring those medical costs. Everyone bears some of that brunt. Can you explain that concept?
Kriesky: When people are treated in the hospital and they aren’t insured there will be costs that aren’t covered. The hospital bears those costs initially. But ultimately, they’re going to cover those costs through increased price for procedures. That kind of filters on to insurance companies that are going to say, ‘Wow, healthcare is costing more, so premiums should be higher.’ I wouldn’t say that it’s just drug related illnesses that end up costing us more, but it’s any illness that poor people get essentially, or that requires a lot of treatment and is expensive. It gets spread out over the entire population.
Leffler: And you look at Kanawha County specifically, just tell me why you’re interested in Kanawha County? What does this report recommend to county and local officials there?
Kriesky: Kanawha County has very high numbers of cases of overdose deaths. It also has not figured out how it’s going to address this issue. All county policymakers need data to make their decisions, and the data is here. That’s why we did it. And if they want to know how they can reduce these enormous costs, well, it kind of seems like a no brainer to me that comprehensive syringe services programs are known to reduce hepatitis C and HIV by half. So all those costs from those illnesses would be reduced. People who enter these programs, new entrants into the programs are five times more likely to enter programs to try to get off of drugs and three times more likely to quit than people who don’t. So it’s a subject that needed to be addressed so that policymakers can work off of statistics, rather than hearsay.