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Opioid epidemic costs to Alaska topped $1 billion in 2015

  • Author: Naomi Klouda, Alaska Journal of Commerce
  • Updated: October 23, 2017
  • Published October 23, 2017

Used syringes are collected in a container at Four A’s (the Alaska AIDS Assistance Association) needle exchange in Anchorage, 2017. (Marc Lester / ADN file photo)

Anyone who's found their homes burglarized or their cars broken into or stolen is increasingly likely to be a victim of the opioid epidemic.

Strewn in parking lot litter and on dog-walk pathways are the spent syringes from someone's latest fix.

Families of people lost in the epidemic suffer the greatest grief and the scale of the epidemic and its victims of all kinds cannot be ignored. That's the acknowledgement at conversations to be taken up at town halls, the Alaska Federation of Natives and by government officials at this year's fourth special session of the Alaska Legislature.

According to a study released in March by the McDowell Group that seeks to quantify the economic costs of the crisis, the toll of drug abuse in Alaska totaled $1.2 billion in 2015 when measured in traffic collisions, health care, criminal justice and protective services, and public assistance.

Alaska lost 128 people in 2016 from drug overdoses, the majority of which were from opioid classified drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

An estimated 2.6 million Americans suffer from an opioid addiction, with addiction rates rising nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 91 people a day die from opioid overdose. Yet, only one in 10 addicted are able to receive treatment.

After Alaska Gov. Bill Walker declared the opioid emergency in February, a $5 million federal grant was immediately made available to supply 7,000 kits to administer naloxone shots. The kits were sent to every population hub in the state as part of Project Hope.

Naloxone is a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose. It can very quickly restore normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing with heroin or prescription opioid pain medications.

More than 50 lives were saved by the shots in the last eight months, said Andy Jones, the deputy incident commander of the opioid crisis at the Department of Health and Social Services, but tracking results is difficult due to the distribution that allows for anonymity.

Other than the kits and the implementation of Project Hope — meant to support to those suffering addiction to help them on the path toward treatment — no expansion of treatment programs have yet occurred, said Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage.

Earlier this month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski made an appeal to President Trump to take specific actions after his own declaration of an opioid epidemic in August. Trump said on Oct. 17 from a press conference in the Rose Garden that he plans to unveil the federal response next week.

The benefit of disaster or emergency declarations is the opening of federal funding that helps states in areas of treatment and temporary programs. In addition to Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia all have declared an opioid emergency.

Alaska State Trooper Lt. Steven Adams, with the statewide drug enforcement unit, said there's no doubt most everyone is touched by the opioid epidemic.

"I would venture to say the highest percentage of the public is affected either by knowing someone touched by addiction or you may be part of the public that is a victim of property crimes," Adams said.

"Of the property crimes that are solved, and we've been able to interview those subjects, it's pretty clear the vehicle break-ins are going to addiction."

Retail property crimes carry an economic impact not often talked about. Adams said when stores experience what's called inventory "shrinkage" through theft of high-priced items, they pass those costs to their customers.

The biggest tally of economic loss, according to the McDowell Group study, was $542 million in lost workforce productivity. Drug abuse results in lost productivity when it prevents people from being employed or performing household tasks such as childcare.

Lost productivity occurs because of premature death, reduced efficiency through physical or mental impairment, employment absenteeism and incarceration or hospitalization.

The second largest cost is in traffic collisions at $396 million in 2015. About 40 percent of all traffic collisions were related to drug abuse, the survey concluded.
Health care and criminal justice each cost $11 million due to drug abuse.

A significant number of crimes can be directly attributed to drug abuse, the McDowell survey concludes. For example, driving under the influence, sale of illegal drugs, and many cases of assault, theft, and other violent and nonviolent crimes. The cost of these crimes includes criminal justice system costs — police protection and law enforcement, legal and adjudication, and incarceration — and the costs to crime victims. A portion of child protective services also are associated with drug abuse. (Available data used in the survey looked at the most recent years 2011-2015.)

Jim Calvin, the principal manager on the McDowell Group study, said the opioid crisis has been accelerating to the point that the current economic impact won't be known for years to come.

"It's hard to see what trajectory we might be headed toward," Calvin said. "The landscape is changing here a bit on what these costs will look like. We don't have a sense or a full measure of the economic impact, but the trend we know is of growing costs. We are in the billions now."

Rep. Claman gave a talk Oct. 17 to the Anchorage Rotary Club about Alaska's current criminal justice issues and the drug epidemic. Claman is chair of the House Judiciary Committee and sits on the Criminal Justice Commission. His primary concern, he said, is the need for more federal funding to help combat the opioid crisis.

"If we had more federal funding, we could increase the number of our treatment beds or hire more staff, or support efforts for better use of the treatment beds we have by not being empty for a period of time," Claman said.

The Salvation Army Clitheroe Center expansions is a logical step, he believes, a project supported by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. A $3 million grant could add significantly to the number of people allowed in for treatment by adding beds and staff.

But another aspect of the problem, Claman said, are high losses in law enforcement officers since Alaska budget cuts starting gutting the Alaska State Troopers in 2014. City cuts in Anchorage under Mayor Dan Sullivan did the same kind of damage, he said.

"We had 400 officers and were cut down to 328 officers; that's nearly a quarter of the APD that was cut," Claman said. "Now we are back with over 400 officers, but many may be in training or not fully operating yet."

Depending on the kind of grants Alaskan agencies request, there could be more public health resources to help officers as they respond to street incidents involving addicts.

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