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December 2017

How Will the United States Pay for the Opioid Epidemic?

By Patricia A. Markus, Bradley J. Sayles

American Health Lawyers Association’s Physician Organizations

Copyright 2017, American Health Lawyers Association, Washington, DC. Reprint permission granted.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths involving opioids have more than quadrupled since 1999. This development was “driven by increasing deaths from prescription opioids”1 during a time when the prescribing of opioids to treat chronic pain increased dramatically. In 2015, the CDC estimated that more than two million people in the United States had a substance use disorder (SUD) involving prescription pain relievers—nearly four times the agency’s estimated number of people addicted to heroin.2 Opioid prescribing rates have slowly declined since 2012, suggesting that widespread efforts to change prescribing practices have had an impact.3 However, the average length of an opioid prescription increased from 13 days in 2006 to 18 days in 2015.4 Anne Schuchat, a former Acting Director of the CDC, found this trend “concerning,” noting that the longer a person has access to opioids, the greater are that person’s chances of becoming addicted.