Editorial: Opioids a drain on workforce, health care; should give pols sense of urgency

Published: 11/22/2018 9:21:38 AM

We’ve known for years now, as the national opioid addiction epidemic has swept through Franklin County and the North Quabbin region, that the costs in personal terms are enormous.

As opioid addiction hijacks the brain chemistry of more and more people, it devastates their lives and the lives of those who love them. To reclaim their lives, those in the thrall of painkillers and heroin, have to struggle mightily, with lots of professional, medical and family help to regain control of their lives — lives that nonetheless are altered forever. How you measure that impact on so many families is hard to imagine.

And yet, there are other impacts of opioid addiction that are becoming clearer that we can quantify. And the news is no better.

The ongoing crisis of drug abuse and overdose deaths has had a severe impact on Massachusetts businesses, a recent study has concluded. The crisis is costing employers $2.7 billion a year in lost productivity among workers and an estimated $2.1 billion in excess health care costs, related to opioid usage, according to a study by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

“The economic and fiscal impacts of the opioid epidemic on the state are enormous and its growth is rapid and relentless,” the business-backed fiscal watchdog organization wrote in its report.

While recognizing the huge personal impact of addiction, the business group nonetheless notes that the crisis is causing an unprecedented constraint on economic growth, which can’t be ignored.

“The tens of thousands more prime age people lost to the workforce due to the opioid crisis is yet another stiff headwind businesses must overcome in order to expand and prosper,” the group wrote in its report.

In the last seven years, opioids have kept an estimated 32,700 people from participating in the Massachusetts labor force. Another 143,000 people who have a job — 4.2 percent of those employed in the state — reported painkiller misuse and average an extra 18 more days off from work than those who do not misuse prescription pain medication, MTF said.

Since 2011, Massachusetts has averaged $5.9 billion in annual productivity lost due to people being kept from the workforce because of the effects of the opioid crisis. That annual loss is about 1.27 percent of total gross state product and is three times as great as the lost productivity in 2000, MTF said.

The state budget has also felt the effects of the opioid epidemic as government tries to fight back. According to MTF, 90,000 MassHealth members received services related to an opioid use disorder in 2017. MTF estimated that MassHealth spent $860 million on opioid-related costs.

The Department of Public Health, which supports treatment and prevention services for substance use, has seen its total annual budget double to $136 million between 2001 and 2017.

MTF says it did the research in part, to encourage business leaders to become more involved in combating the problem. The report was released ahead of a recent forum to which Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders were invited.

We hope this new information will allow state government and business leaders to see the great urgency of having everyone in our society engaged in the battle against addiction.

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