The nation’s ongoing opioid problem comes with staggering physical and emotional costs to patients and families. But the dollar cost to the health system has been harder to peg. Now a new report shows a more than 1,300 percent rise in spending by health insurers in a four-year period on patients with a diagnosis of opioid dependence or abuse.
From 2011 to 2015, insurers’ payments to hospitals, laboratories, treatment centers and other medical providers for these patients grew from $32 million to $446 million, a 1,375 percent increase.
While that’s a small portion of the overall spending on medical care in the United States, the rapid rise is cause for concern, says Robin Gelburd, president of Fair Health, a nonprofit databank that provides cost information to the health industry and consumers.
“That really shows the stress on the health system and the impact on the individuals,” said Gelburd.
The Fair Health study found a sharp difference in how much insurers spend on individual patients with such a diagnosis.
On average, insurers spend $3,435 a year on an individual patient, but for those with an opioid dependence or abuse diagnosis, that amount jumps to $19,333. Those numbers reflect what insurers actually paid. The report also includes data on what providers charged, amounts that are lowered by their contracts with insurers.
The study builds on one Fair Health released in early August that found a 3,000 percent increase in the volume of insurance claims related to opioid dependence diagnoses between 2007 and 2014.
The latest study, part of a series, offers amounts associated with claims billed by providers and paid by insurers for the types of medical services used.
Both studies use de-identified claims data from insurers representing more than 150 million insured Americans who either have insurance through work or buy coverage on their own.
There have been other efforts by several researchers to quantify the cost of the opioid problem on the overall economy, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. The new report adds to the available data “that it’s not just the human cost associated with the opioid crisis that is enormous, but also that the economic costs are staggering,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, senior scientist at Brandeis University. He did not work on the study.
The surge in spending on patients with opioid diagnoses is likely a combination of factors, the report notes. As media attention focuses on drug dependency, more people may be seeking treatment. At the same time, prescription and illegal use of narcotics may also be increasing.
The study found that emergency room visits and laboratory tests accounted for much of the spending.
Based on claims volume, the fastest-growing set of services in terms of utilization were for alcohol or drug therapy. Lab tests, including checks for barbiturate or opioid use, were not far behind.