The cost of treating opioid overdose victims in hospital intensive care units jumped 58 percent in a seven-year span, according to a new study that concludes increasingly sick patients are placing a greater strain on an overmatched health care system.

Between 2009 and 2015, the average cost of care per opioid admission increased from $58,500 to $92,400 in the 162 academic hospitals included in the study, which was led by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. That rapid escalation far outpaced the overall medical inflation rate in the U.S., which was about 19 percent during the period covered by the study.

Researchers said the cost increase highlights a troubling trend: that overdose patients are arriving in worse shape, requiring longer stays and a higher level of treatment.

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More of them are also dying: Annual deaths in ICUs nearly doubled during the study period.

“U.S. critical care is awfully good and has a lot of resources, and we’re still not able to save a lot of these lives,” said the lead researcher, Dr. Jennifer P. Stevens, associate medical director of the ICU at Beth Israel.

“That’s really, really concerning,” she said.

President Trump said on Thursday that he planned to declare a state of emergency around the opioid crisis.

The study shows that deaths rose steadily for several years and then began spiking in 2012. “I was particularly struck that the mortality was increasing at such an alarming rate,” Stevens said. “Our data goes through September of 2015, and I’m sure the story has continued in an even more complex way since then.”  

Stevens said many overdose patients need a longer duration of mechanical ventilation and sedation, and many are suffering from more severe consequences from drug use, such as liver and kidney failure.

The study does not address why patients are getting to the hospital in worse shape. A number of factors may be at play: The opioids circulating in many communities, such as fentanyl and carfentanil, are more powerful. First responders may also be getting better at reviving people in dire condition. And as the scope of the epidemic has widened, hospitals may be seeing more patients with underlying health issues that make them harder to treat and ultimately save.

Overall, the researchers found, the number of ICU admissions increased 34 percent over the seven-year period. Their study analyzed about 23 million admissions of adult patients across 44 states. Of the more than 4 million patients who required intensive care, about 21,700 patients were admitted due to opioid overdoses.

The study only examined admissions within a consortium of academic medical centers, most of which are located in urban areas. The data do not reflect the scope or severity of the crisis in rural areas, or in the community hospitals that generally have fewer resources to treat overdose victims.

Stevens said another limiting factor was the study’s reliance on billing data. “I imagine that would not only underestimate the incidence, but also the severity of the cases,” she said, because the billing data may not always reflect the reason for a patient’s admission.

Stevens, who is also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, said she was motivated to examine the costs of opioid overdoses because of her experience in the ICU, where she has witnessed the worst impacts of the crisis.

Overdoses not only affect the patient, but entire communities that see too many neighbors and colleagues die young.

“This is an epidemic that creeps into all of our lives in all sorts of different ways,” she said. “In the ICU, it’s particularly dramatic — the true tragedies that come from opioid use disorder.”  

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  • We live in a capitalistic society gone wild and the drug companies marketing these drug did a superb job for themselves and their investors. Stupid (and greedy) doctors were taken in by their marketing claims disaster followed… Who should pay for all this drug rehab treatment???

    • The first time I’ve read anyone linking medical problems with capitalism and I could not agree more.

  • At what point will this insane expenditure end? At what point will people take responsibility for their actions? Not everyone has gotten addicted to pain bills prescribed by what are apparently clueless doctors. Let’s be honest with ourselves…any person at any time has the option of taking drugs (or not). Have all these new addicts lost all common sense? Is La La Land strung out on drugs really your best choice?

    • Addiction is a disease, and needs to be treated as such. Yes, healthcare costs for individuals with substance use disorder are soaring. But alternatives suggested by some in the administration (let’s just jail them all) are not exactly free, and are also ineffective and punitive.

    • Addiction is a personal choice. No one is forcing people to use drugs. We do it ourselves. This is our choice. Blame everyone, but not yourself – this is the typical behavior of addicts. But let’s be honest with ourselves, we make this decision ourselves, we make this step ourselves. The Canadian government cares about this. If you are addicted and dependent, you need only apply to a special ministry (link to the source: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-abuse.html)
      And it is true! You can get help if you want. I am a former drug addict and thanks to the Government of Canada I received treatment and rehabilitation in one of the cents in Ontario ()
      I became a drug addict myself, back in school! The Canadian government has nothing to do with it, they did not force me to use drugs. But they helped me defeat the dependence, I’m grateful! Therefore, we should not forget that we are building our own lives and taking drugs ourselves, we do not need to blame the country for this.

  • Big pharma needs to be fined heavily to help offset costs.
    Cannabinoids not opioids. Cannabis is the solution to opiate crisis.

    • Not everyone has good resultw with Cannabis. When it come to chronic pain or any medical condition the treatment should be what works best for the patient and should be determined by the doctor after they exam and review medical records and a long conversation with the patient with options and expections and possible problems. Medical care should be determined by the doctor treating the patient and not politicians.

  • These alarming numbers also point to the devastating affects of the Shame and stigma of society at large as well as health care institutions over decades that kept people suffering from mental health and substance use disorders from seeking care and the broken healthcare system that could not adequately and equitably provide quality care due to lack of resources and specialty trained professionals. Part of that problem was the failure of the for profit insurance companies to pay for care and the failure of government to enforce healthcare Parity and equality laws. This public health issue has been tossed around as a political football with plenty of blame falling everywhere but very little more than lip service given to addressing the root problems: social, economic, education, prevention , treatment and law enforcement…..at the local and federal levels we have persisted in adhering to decades old failed policies and treatment regimens and then wonder why we have these terrible outcomes! Well, as the saying goes, you can’t keep doing the same things wrong and expect different results! A paradigm shift in all areas is needed. Families of Loss, people who have battled to maintain long term recovery,and medical experts pleading for evidence based treatment and improved education and prevention programs for themselves and families have been leading the March for this paradigm shift needed as well as some very courageous elected officials. It may take 10 plus years to overhaul the system but we cannot wait any longer or allow our government to continue to procrastinate while they sabotage our current healthcare system in favor of for profit insurance companies who know they can’t make profits on actual sick people with chronic diseases. We, as citizens, must demand a “STATE OF EMERGENCY” be enacted for sweeping changes because at the current rate of 55,000 lives lost (2016) , we will lose 500,000 citizens of young working age in the next 10 years! So if you think this doesn’t affect you…..think again!

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