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Official says opioid epidemic shorts state’s economy nearly $1 billion

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As much as $1 billion is missing from West Virginia’s economy because of the severity of the state’s opioid epidemic.

Dr. John Deskins, executive director of WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, spoke at the university’s third Academic Media Day on Monday and said substance use disorders are causing significant job loss in the state, as well as tying up resources that could be used in other needed areas.

“Kind of the most grim statistic I looked at were foregone jobs, which are jobs that just simply do not exist in West Virginia because people who have died because of opioid overdoses over the past several years,” Deskins said.

West Virginia leads the nation in overdose deaths, with 36 per 100,000 population in 2015, compared to the national 10.4. Deskins’ calculated that to 4,860 direct jobs cut, totalling $194 million absent from the state’s economy.

Deskins also analyzed costs that come from health care, substance abuse treatment and criminal justice costs. His data showed 4,318 jobs that could be freed for other pursuits, equal to $322 million.

“Fact of the matter is, because of the severity of the opioid crisis, we have just a lot of people in criminal justice, public health and other parts of our economy that their whole time has to be devoted to combatting the opioid crisis,” Deskins said. “If we could solve the opioid crisis, those workers could be freed up to tackle other challenges that we face in West Virginia.

“With the opioid crisis, we just have fewer workers in the first place because of the deaths, and we also have to devote so many of our sarce resources to combatting the problem, it implies that we have fewer resources to tackle other challenges, like poor education outcomes for example,” he said.

The third aspect Deskins studied was how people are less productive when they’re addicted to opioids.

“Some people are working, but they’re less productive per hour, some people are working fewer hours and some people are living but so addicted to opioids that they don’t work at all,” he said. “All together, even from the people who have not overdosed, there’s certainly a big hit to our economy from lower productivity, and that loss is probably much smaller than we’ve seen from the people who have died, but it’s still a significant loss.”

Deskins’ research showed over 1,200 jobs falling under productivity loss, which is equal to $316 million.

With all of these factors combined, Deskins said the state’s opioid epidemic is one of the biggest roadblocks to West Virginia’s economic development.

“Policy makers and every leader in the state should really be focused on improving education, health and drug abuse outcomes because they really represent a crisis that keeps holding West Virginia back from really achieving it’s full economic potential,” he said.

While West Virginia’s economy has recovered from the dip in the energy industry, Deskins believes the bounce back would have been greater if not for the opioid epidemic.

“It’s improved from rock bottom where we were a year and a half ago, but it could be a lot better. If we could improve education outcomes, if we could health outcomes and if we could help people break this addiction with opioids, then we could realize much, much higher levels of economic prosperity, and West Virginia could come much closer to the national average in terms of income and other economic outcome measures.

Although the numbers that Deskins provided in Monday’s presentation are important, he says more research is needed to grasp the full effect.

“They’ve given us a sense of the magnitude in West Virginia, but they’re all based on national averages in terms of productivity loss, in terms of health care costs or substance abuse treatment costs. We’ve just taken national average numbers and applied those to West Virginia,” he said. “It’d be nice to get some more precisely tailored estimates where we have those cost that are specifically derived from West Virginia data. If somebody would like to sponsor us to do that research, we’d be glad to do it.”

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