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Experts discuss economic cost of opioids

By CONOR GRIFFITH

The State Journal

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.  — West Virginia University economists say the state’s opioid crises, in addition to the direct problems associated with it, is costing thousands of jobs and diverting resources that could be used elsewhere.

John Deskins, director of WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said West Virginia’s labor force participation rate stands at only 53 percent, which is dead last among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. The national average is 63 percent.

John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University.

Deskins said a big contributing factor to the state’s low rate is the prevalence of opioids and the inability of many workers to pass a drug test.

“It’s a huge black mark on our state in terms of drawing in potential businesses,” Deskins said. “This is dramatic and this is a major, major impediment to job growth.”

Deskins explained that opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. rose to 10 per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2015. During that same period in West Virginia, however, the number skyrocketed to 35 per 100,000.

“The U.S. number almost looks flat when you compare it to West Virginia,” Deskins said, noting that 2015 is simply the most recent data available and the actual death numbers are likely higher.

Tallying all the extra police, doctors, substance abuse specialists and others, Deskins said 4,318 jobs could be freed up for other pursuits in the state if not for the drug epidemic. He noted that $322 million could also be spent elsewhere, such as improving West Virginia’s schools.

“There are a lot of areas where we need to devote more resources,” Deskins said.

He noted that the status quo is a vicious cycle: Jobs dry up, so people turn to drugs out of despair and, as a result, can’t pass a drug test when new employers consider setting up shop.

Breaking the cycle won’t be easy, but Deskins expressed confidence that the $83.7 billion agreement between West Virginia and China Energy could turn things around.

“To break it takes a positive shock,” he said, noting physicians are also starting to turn away from prescribing opioids.

Finance and economics professor Paul Speaker reflected on the “opportunity costs” to society and individuals as a result of the opioid crisis. He said those costs can be reduced depending when an individual addiction case is addressed.

For example, Speaker said, “opportunity costs” are incurred during drug treatment when factoring in wages lost during treatment.

However, these costs are small when compared to someone going through the justice system, because lab analyses, investigations, incarceration, attorneys and others facets increase the bill. Speaker said costs are even higher for an overdose death, citing funeral expenses, effects on surviving relatives, medical examiner services and permanently lost economic productivity.

Speaker noted increases in the cost and turnaround time of lab processing in controlled-substance cases in West Virginia from 2009 to 2016. However, state lab workers have processed higher numbers of cases in that time.

“They’re very productive, but we’re wearing them out,” he said. “There aren’t enough of them.”

Staff writer Conor Griffith can be reached by at 304-395-3168 or by email at [email protected]

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