Drug-affected communities count the lives, dollars and sense of an opioid epidemic

By Ashton Nichols

ATHENS, Ohio—The opioid epidemic costs more than human lives.

Athens County Emergency Medical Services pays about $28 for one dose, 0.4mg, of Narcan or Naloxone. ACEMS used 50 doses of Narcan from Jan. 1, 2018, to Oct. 1, 2018, said Tami Wires, deputy chief of ACEMS. That makes $1400 spent on Narcan so far this year.

“The ACEMS base rate for an Advanced Life Support Run is $757 plus a mileage charge for each mile the patient is in our ambulance,” Wires said in an email. Providing Narcan to someone qualifies as an ALS run.

Wires said the opioid epidemic began in Athens in the mid-to-late 2000s, which has caused ACEMS to increase the supply it carries.

Source_ Cabell County EMS-3

Since 2004, the annual cost of treating opioid addiction and overdoses have increased more than eight-fold in the past 14 years. According to a report by the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, the cost to treat opioid addiction in the United States was $300 million in 2004 and was $2.6 billion in 2016.

OHIOHealth O’Bleness Hospital in Athens does not track how much it spends on opioid treatment each year, said Keely Stockwell, O’Bleness marketing and communications manager.

The foundation reported that the average inpatient expenses for opioid addiction treatment totaled $16,104 per person in 2016, which was up from $5,809 in 2004.

In 2016, CNN reported the city of Huntington, West Virginia, had 27 heroin overdoses in a four-hour period. One was fatal.

Although Huntington is one of the places in the U.S. that was hit hardest, the local economy has been increasing, said Bryan Chambers, the city’s communications director.
“If you look at our downtown, we have new businesses opening every single week. Our downtown is thriving. Our local economy is on an upswing,” Chambers said. “That’s not to say that the opioid epidemic does not impact our economy, but we’re on an upswing right now.”

Chambers said the opioid epidemic is “still the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” but the city of Huntington has been making progress and seeing results.

Each overdose in Cabell County costs EMS about $500, according to EMS data obtained from Chambers. From Jan. 1, 2018, to Oct. 1, 2018, there have been 868 non-fatal overdoses, costing CCEMS about $434,000.

Each 2 mg vial of Narcan is $29.83, according to Cabell County EMS.


Last year alone, Cabell County EMS spent $915,500 on overdose runs. 2017 will be a record year for fatal overdoses in Cabell County, Chambers said. Fatal overdose data was not able to be provided because the 2017 numbers have yet to be finalized.

“Nonfatal overdose data we can get in virtually no time,” Chambers said. “For fatal overdose data, there is a huge lag time because you have to wait for toxicology reports. The chief medical examiner’s office for West Virginia is also extremely backed up. A lot of this data for fatal overdoses is about a year and a half behind.”

Even though 2017 was a record year for the number of fatal overdoses, Chambers said there has been a gradual decline over a 12-month period. He said Cabell County is on pace for about 1,100 nonfatal overdoses in 2018.

“Basically … we hit the bell curve; we have hit the peak in 2016 or maybe early 2017,” Chambers said. “The fatal overdose is gradually declining. We hope that will be a trend of 2018 as well, but we have not received any data yet.”

Chambers said people often commit crimes in need for money to spend on drugs. Property crimes are down 14.2 percent for the first nine months of this year compared to the same nine months last year, he said. Violent crimes are also down 14.2 percent compared to this time last year.

The City of Huntington has implemented a needle exchange program, as well as several rehabilitation programs to help with the epidemic, Chambers said.

“We think that we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “This isn’t going to be solved overnight, or in a year’s time, or probably two or three years’ time. But we feel like we are headed in the right direction.”

The United States is not alone in the fight against drug abuse. Germany, a country with a population of about 83 million people, compared to the 326 million people of the United States, still sees the effects of drug abuse.

In 2016, a total of 1,333 people died in Germany from drug overdoses, and the U.S. recorded

63,600 deaths that same year, according to a study done by Altarum, a health care company. That is one opioid death per 103,750 German residents and one per 5,126 American residents.

Germany ranks 62nd in death by drug use, while the U.S. ranks fifth, according to worldlifeexpectancy.com.

Sandra Westphal has lived in Leipzig, Germany, for four and a half years. She studied in the undergraduate program at Universität Leipzig and then returned for her graduate degree in global mass communication. In fall 2018 she is studying at Ohio University as part of her graduate program.

She said there is a treatment center for drug addiction around the tram stop by her neighborhood, Reudnitz, in Leipzig.

“I only know but I’ve never seen it,” Westphal said. “It’s something hard to tell. Because you have such a good health care in Germany, you don’t see it with a lot of people. They can be pretty normal people, but they can be on all sorts of drugs because they have medical care.”

Westphal said she has noticed increased coverage about opioids in cities that were hit hard, such as Leipzig.

“They have put a lot more law enforcement against it,” Westphal said.

Westphal said the opioid epidemic was brought to her attention when her Athens landlord told her about problems with opioids in the Appalachian region.Chambers said the opioid epidemic is a hard epidemic to treat because it doesn’t just affect one individual or one aspect of society.

“I think part of it is an issue that touches every component of this community,” he said. “Everything from the job market to the health care, to public safety to strain on local government.”

Chambers said he believes that communication and partnerships throughout Huntington are what have helped the most.

“Everyone checks their ego at the door; no one is looking for a pat on the back,” Chambers said. “We do this because we feel this is right for our community.”