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WVU forensic financial expert: Opportunities lost for West Virginia in opioid epidemic are ‘staggering’

WVU Today

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A research professor and forensic economic expert at West Virginia University said the opioid epidemic has taken a substantial, expensive toll on this state, preventing West Virginia from investing in its citizens because of this drug abuse crisis.

WVU research professor and forensic economic expert Paul Speaker tells media representatives at WVU’s November Academic Media Day that the crisis is taking a staggering toll in the state.
(WVU Today photo)

Paul Speaker, who works as a finance professor and whose area of expertise is public sector financial management at the WVU College of Business and Economics, said the cost of the opioid crisis is mounting quickly, and that you do not have to look that far to see the toll it is taking. He said the turnaround time on a lab request in West Virginia is approximately 270 days in a system that is clogged with opioid cases, causing significant delays in tests needed for countless criminal investigations.

Speaker pointed to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s decision in October to donate $1 million from healthcare-related court settlements to the West Virginia State Police to help aid in the backlog of cases in the State Police Crime Lab. Speaker, who is an expert with the Project FORESIGHT forensic science initiative at WVU and has an international reputation for helping crime labs operate more efficiently, said that $1 million could have been used for other purposes, but that the opioid epidemic continues to financially drain the state.

“When you look at things from the perspective that this $1 million generously donated by the state attorney general could have been used for other purposes in West Virginia that are so desperately needed, you discover how staggering this opioid epidemic is,” Speaker said.

Speaker, who has made multiple presentations on forensic lab efficiency to Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization based in Lyon, France, provided a detailed presentation at WVU’s Academic Media Day on Nov. 13. He demonstrated how the avalanche of opioid-related cases inundates crime labs, and that the crisis is dominating public resources.

He explained that the West Virginia Attorney General’s $1 million can be used for toxicology analysis in 1,751 drug cases. Speaker said the opioid caseload for a state laboratory he used as an example has nearly doubled since 2011, and that the average cost to process a controlled substances case between 2009 and 2016 has grown 86 percent. Further, the average total expenses for labs in the opioid crisis region has increased 98 percent.

Rather than spend the $1 million donation on the police lab backlog, Speaker determined that the donation could have been spent in West Virginia in the following ways had the opioid crisis not been so prevalent:

·      Laboratory analysis for 749 sexual assault cases

·      13,514 additions to CODIS, the DNA database

·      Inpatient treatment for up to 167 patients with addictions

·      Outpatient treatment for up to 200 patients with addictions

·      Feed 362 senior citizens for one year

·      Provide Promise college scholarships to 211 students

·      Send 132 pre-school children to head start programs for one year

“That’s the cost we’re all paying on this opioid crisis,” he said, “when we see years like this year with significant budget cuts. The money spent on the opioid crisis has become overwhelming. Seniors, education, children and infrastructure are losers in the opioid epidemic. And another down side is that this is a very temporary solution. Next year, this problem is back in full force.”

The dangers of the opioid epidemic also extend beyond the drug abusers to emergency personnel such as doctors, nurses, first responders and K-9 dogs. Emerging drugs like fentanyl have deepened and worsened the epidemic. Known as heroin’s “synthetic cousin,” only a three-milligram dose of fentanyl can kill an average-sized adult male. A lethal dose of heroin is approximately 30 milligrams.

“Emergency personnel have to spend a lot more money and take many extra steps to make sure they are safe from drugs like fentanyl. They have to take numerous extra precautions in doing things like cleaning up ambulances after transporting an opioid patient,” Speaker said.

WVU economist John Deskins recently stated that the opioid crisis in West Virginia had caused a void in the state economy of nearly $1 billion. However, if the data provided in a White House report titled “The Underestimated Cost of the Opioid Crisis” is accurate, it could be substantially more than that.

“The opioid drug problem has reached crisis levels in the United States—in 2015, over 33,000 Americans died of a drug overdose involving opioids,” read the report by the Council of Economic Advisers last month. “CEA finds that previous estimates of the economic cost of the opioid crisis greatly understate it by undervaluing the most important component of the loss—fatalities resulting from overdoses. CEA estimates that in 2015, the economic cost of the opioid crisis was $504.0 billion, or 2.8 percent of GDP that year. This is over six times larger than the most recently estimated economic cost of the epidemic.”

Speaker said a Project FORESIGHT report has provided unique and much-needed data as West Virginia and the nation attempt to get a hold on the devastating epidemic. The impact on crime labs across the country and data on how resources are allocated in fighting opioid abuse are now available to study, and Speaker said we should learn from what we now know.

“We at WVU have the only detailed data on the fully loaded costs to forensic laboratories for specific functions,” he said. “We can look at specific costs and how these costs change over time. That’s how we know the impact the opioid crisis is having on the criminal justice system. We have to think differently. We have to study this crisis and determine what our options are and where we’re going to invest our resources.”

Speaker said policy changes are needed in West Virginia, and that he believes addressing the epidemic from a health and wellness perspective is far more affordable than simply handling the crisis and opioid abusers through the criminal justice system.

“Education is important to deal with this crisis. I am convinced that going through the criminal justice system is much, much more expensive than going through the treatment and prevention alternative,” he said. “And we’re providing the numbers that prove it. This is very important information to policymakers.”

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