The Opioid Overdose Crisis

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Page last updated June 10, 2020 by Doug McVay, Editor/Senior Policy Analyst.

16. Prevalence of Chronic Pain in the US

"To estimate the prevalence of chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain in the United States, CDC analyzed 2016 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data. An estimated 20.4% (50.0 million) of U.S. adults had chronic pain and 8.0% of U.S. adults (19.6 million) had high-impact chronic pain, with higher prevalences of both chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain reported among women, older adults, previously but not currently employed adults, adults living in poverty, adults with public health insurance, and rural residents."

Dahlhamer J, Lucas J, Zelaya, C, et al. Prevalence of Chronic Pain and High-Impact Chronic Pain Among Adults — United States, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2018;67:1001–1006. DOI:

17. Involvement of Fentanyl in Overdose Deaths in the US

"Fentanyl was detected in 56.3% of 5,152 opioid overdose deaths in the 10 states during July–December 2016 (Figure). Among these 2,903 fentanyl-positive deaths, fentanyl was determined to be a cause of death by the medical examiner or coroner in nearly all (97.1%) of the deaths. Northeastern states (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) and Missouri** reported the highest percentages of opioid overdose deaths involving fentanyl (approximately 60%–90%), followed by Midwestern and Southern states (Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin), where approximately 30%–55% of decedents tested positive for fentanyl. New Mexico and Oklahoma reported the lowest percentage of fentanyl-involved deaths (approximately 15%–25%). In contrast, states detecting any fentanyl analogs in >10% of opioid overdose deaths were spread across the Northeast (Maine, 28.6%, New Hampshire, 12.2%), Midwest (Ohio, 26.0%), and South (West Virginia, 20.1%) (Figure) (Table 1).

"Fentanyl analogs were present in 720 (14.0%) opioid overdose deaths, with the most common being carfentanil (389 deaths, 7.6%), furanylfentanyl (182, 3.5%), and acetylfentanyl (147, 2.9%) (Table 1). Fentanyl analogs contributed to death in 535 of the 573 (93.4%) decedents. Cause of death was not available for fentanyl analogs in 147 deaths.†† Five or more deaths involving carfentanil occurred in two states (Ohio and West Virginia), furanylfentanyl in five states (Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin), and acetylfentanyl in seven states (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin). U-47700 was present in 0.8% of deaths and found in five or more deaths only in Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin (Table 1). Demographic characteristics of decedents were similar among overdose deaths involving fentanyl analogs and fentanyl (Table 2). Most were male (71.7% fentanyl and 72.2% fentanyl analogs), non-Hispanic white (81.3% fentanyl and 83.6% fentanyl analogs), and aged 25–44 years (58.4% fentanyl and 60.0% fentanyl analogs) (Table 2).

"Other illicit drugs co-occurred in 57.0% and 51.3% of deaths involving fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, respectively, with cocaine and confirmed or suspected heroin detected in a substantial percentage of deaths (Table 2). Nearly half (45.8%) of deaths involving fentanyl analogs tested positive for two or more analogs or fentanyl, or both. Specifically, 30.9%, 51.1%, and 97.3% of deaths involving carfentanil, furanylfentanyl, and acetylfentanyl, respectively, tested positive for fentanyl or additional fentanyl analogs. Forensic investigations found evidence of injection drug use in 46.8% and 42.1% of overdose deaths involving fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, respectively. Approximately one in five deaths involving fentanyl and fentanyl analogs had no evidence of injection drug use but did have evidence of other routes of administration. Among these deaths, snorting (52.4% fentanyl and 68.8% fentanyl analogs) and ingestion (38.2% fentanyl and 29.7% fentanyl analogs) were most common. Although rare, transdermal administration was found among deaths involving fentanyl (1.2%), likely indicating pharmaceutical fentanyl (Table 2). More than one third of deaths had no evidence of route of administration."

Julie K. O’Donnell, PhD; John Halpin, MD; Christine L. Mattson, PhD; Bruce A. Goldberger, PhD; R. Matthew Gladden, PhD. Deaths Involving Fentanyl, Fentanyl Analogs, and U-47700 — 10 States, July–December 2016. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Vol. 66. Centers for Disease Control. October 27, 2017.

18. CDC Opioid Prescribing Guidelines Are Making It Difficult For Cancer Patients To Obtain Pain Medication

"There has been a significant increase in cancer patients and survivors being unable to access their opioid prescriptions since 2016, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finalized opioid prescribing guidelines."

Percent of cancer patients and survivors who report being unable to get opioid prescription pain medication because the pharmacy did not have the particular drug in stock:
December 2016: 16%
May 2018: 41%

Percent of cancer patients and survivors who report being questioned by a pharmacist about why they needed their opioid pain medication:
December 2016: 16%
May 2018: 35%

Percent of cancer patients and survivors who report being unable to get their prescription pain medication because the pharmacist would not fill it for whatever reason even though the pharmacist had it in stock?
December 2016: 12%
May 2018: 27%

Percent of cancer patients and survivors who report being unable to get their opioid prescription pain medication because their insurance would not cover it:
December 2016: 11%
May 2018: 30%

Percent of cancer patients and survivors who report that their insurance company has limited them to just one pharmacy to go to for filling their opioid prescription pain medication.
December 2016: 14%
May 2018: 32%

Percent of cancer patients and survivors who report that their insurance company has reduced the number of times their opioid prescription can be refilled:
December 2016: 21%
May 2018: 36%

Percent of cancer patients and survivors who report that their insurance company has reduced the number of pills in their opioid prescription pain medication:
December 2016: 19%
May 2018: 25%

American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Patient Quality of Life Coalition, and Public Opinion Strategies. Key Findings Summary: Opioid Access Research Project. June 2018.

19. Estimated Economic Impact of Illegal Opioid Use and Opioid-Related Overdose Deaths

The White House Council of Economic Advisers [CEA] released its analysis of the economic costs of illegal opioid use, related overdoses, and overdose mortality in November 2017. It reported a dramatically higher estimate than previous analyses, largely due to a change in methodology. Previous analyses had used a person's estimated lifetime earnings to place a dollar value on that person's life. According to the CEA, "We diverge from the previous literature by quantifying the costs of opioid-related overdose deaths based on economic valuations of fatality risk reduction, the “value of a statistical life” (VSL)."

The CEA noted that "According to a recent white paper prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Policy for review by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (U.S. EPA 2016), the EPA’s current guidance calls for using a VSL estimate of $10.1 million (in 2015 dollars), updated from earlier estimates based on inflation, income growth, and assumed income elasticities. Guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) suggests using the range of estimates from Robinson and Hammitt (2016) referenced earlier, ranging from a low of $4.4 million to a high of $14.3 million with a central value of $9.4 million (in 2015 dollars). The central estimates used by these three agencies, DOT, EPA, and HHS, range from a low of $9.4 million (HHS) to a high of $10.1 million (EPA) (in 2015 dollars)."

In addition, the CEA assumed that the number of opioid-related overdoses in the US in 2015 was significantly under-reported. According to its report, "However, recent research has found that opioids are underreported on death certificates. Ruhm (2017) estimates that in 2014, opioid-involved overdose deaths were 24 percent higher than officially reported.4 We apply this adjustment to the 2015 data, resulting in an estimated 41,033 overdose deaths involving opioids. We apply this adjustment uniformly over the age distribution of fatalities."

The combination of that assumption with the methodology change resulted in a dramatically higher cost estimate than previous research had shows. According to the CEA, "CEA’s preferred cost estimate of $504.0 billion far exceeds estimates published elsewhere. Table 3 shows the cost estimates from several past studies of the cost of the opioid crisis, along with the ratio of the CEA estimate to each study’s estimate in 2015 dollars. Compared to the recent Florence et al. (2016) study—which estimated the cost of prescription opioid abuse in 2013—CEA’s preferred estimate is more than six times higher, reported in the table’s last column as the ratio of $504.0 billion to $79.9 billion, which is Florence et al.’s estimate adjusted to 2015 dollars. Even CEA’s low total cost estimate of $293.9 billion is 3.7 times higher than Florence et al.’s estimate."

In contrast, the CEA noted that "Among the most recent (and largest) estimates was that produced by Florence et al. (2016), who estimated that prescription opioid overdose, abuse, and dependence in the United States in 2013 cost $78.5 billion. The authors found that 73 percent of this cost was attributed to nonfatal consequences, including healthcare spending, criminal justice costs and lost productivity due to addiction and incarceration. The remaining 27 percent was attributed to fatality costs consisting almost entirely of lost potential earnings." According to the CDC, there were 25,840 deaths in 2013 related to an opioid overdose.

According to the CEA, "We also present cost estimates under three alternative VSL assumptions without age-adjustment: low ($5.4 million), middle ($9.6 million), and high ($13.4 million), values suggested by the U.S. DOT and similar to those used by HHS. For example, our low fatality cost estimate of $221.6 billion is the product of the adjusted number of fatalities, 41,033, and the VSL assumption of $5.4 million. Our fatality cost estimates thus range from a low of $221.6 billion to a high of $549.8 billion."

"The Underestimated Cost of the Opioid Crisis," Council of Economic Advisers, Executive Office of the President of the United States, November 2017.
Warner M, Trinidad JP, Bastian BA, et al. Drugs most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths: United States, 2010–2014. National vital statistics reports; vol 65 no 10. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016. Table B, p. 64.

20. Reductions in Opioid Prescribing for People with Severe Pain

"According to the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, the annual share of US adults who were prescribed opioids decreased from 12.9 percent in 2014 to 10.3 percent in 2016, and the decrease was concentrated among adults with shorter-term rather than longer-term prescriptions. The decrease was also larger for adults who reported moderate or more severe pain (from 32.8 percent to 25.5 percent) than for those who reported lessthan-moderate pain (from 8.0 percent to 6.6 percent). In the same period opioids were prescribed to 3.75 million fewer adults reporting moderate or more severe pain and 2.20 million fewer adults reporting less-thanmoderate pain. Because the decline in prescribing primarily involved adults who reported moderate or more severe pain, these trends raise questions about whether efforts to decrease opioid prescribing have successfully focused on adults who report less severe pain."

Mark Olfson, Shuai Wang, Melanie M. Wall, and Carlos Blanco. Trends In Opioid Prescribing And Self-Reported Pain Among US Adults. Health Affairs 2020 39:1, 146-154.