Paul Speaker, associate professor of finance and adjunct associate professor of economics at West Virginia University, is involved with Project FORESIGHT, which is part of a forensic science initiative at the university.
The project has gathered data going back to 2009 from 139 laboratories all over the nation, as well as other parts of the world, Speaker said.
“We connect information on casework, on financials, their budgets and on their personnel,” he explained. “We try to find out what kinds of things are working, what would you do differently, how can you work a little more efficiently with this. We want to be able to provide information to the laboratories themselves … but we also want to provide information to policymakers.”
Costs have been increasing for first responders, laboratories, public health and the entire justice system, Speaker said. Project FORESIGHT analyzes what those costs are.
“We need our lawmakers and decision-makers to be armed with great information,” Speaker said. “My job is to provide that information to our decision-makers so they can figure out, in representing society and representing the public good, where do those things go.”
Displaying a chart, Speaker showed four different categories where there are costs related to the opioid crisis: prevention, treatment, the justice system and death.
The smallest total cost is the prevention section, which includes costs for things like education, economic opportunity and employment.
The second-smallest cost is treatment, which also includes education, but has additional costs such as health coverage, public health, mental health availability and wages lost during treatment.
The justice system is the second-largest cost: first responder safety measures, police investigation, public health laboratory analysis, forensic laboratory analysis, jail, defense attorney, prosecutor, investigator, court, prison, wages lost during incarceration, mental health treatment, STI (sexually transmitted infections) treatment and workforce rehabilitation.
However, the largest cost was death: first responder safety, medical examiner, forensic laboratory analysis, public health laboratory analysis, funeral, survivor effects, lost earnings and lost productivity.
“We would like policymakers to know what these things cost, and when you’re deciding where in the budget you’re going to put your money, hopefully choosing much less expensive alternatives when you work your way through all this,” Speaker said.
In analyzing data from its participating labs throughout the nation, Project FORESIGHT found that, from 2009 to 2016, there’s been a 98 percent growth in total expenses related to seized drugs. The average cost to process a case has grown 86 percent, he said. In addition to costs going up, workers’ productivity is going up as well, because with an increase in cases, the lab employees are being overworked, Speaker said.
Speaker referenced an occurrence in October, when the West Virginia attorney general gave $1 million from health-care settlements to the State Police to help with the backlog in the crime lab.
“If we had taken that million dollars and put it, say, toward toxicology cases, we could have done another 1,751 cases,” he said, pointing out that money put toward fighting the opioid crisis takes away from other places.
With that money, Speaker said 749 sexual assault cases could have been processed; inpatient treatment could have been provided to between 50 to 167 patients with addictions; 362 seniors could have been fed; 132 preschoolers could have been sent to Head Start for a year.
“When we take money out of that general budget, or put special in there of any use, we’re taking it from something else,” Speaker said. “We’re making choices with our money. We want our policymakers to understand.”
Speaker said Project FORESIGHT aims to inform decision-makers what the different costs are in this crisis, and help them decide how to spend money in a manner that isn’t based on emotions, but on economics.
TOMORROW: Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, discusses some of the work he’s been doing to treat opioid and other addictions.
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