You Can’t Spend Your Way Out of an Opioid Crisis

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Spending more doesn’t always get you more and that includes money going towards combatting America’s ongoing opioid crisis. But don’t tell that to the Biden Administration.

A recent budget proposal by the Republican Study Committee aims to cut federal non-defense spending by 30 percent. This includes funds sent to states to address opioid overdoses and misuse. The proposal specifically targets State Opioid Response grants, which have supplied state governments with the means to purchase about 10 million overdose reversal medication kits since 2018 for reduced funding. 

The White House has strongly criticized the committee’s work in a factsheet responding to the proposal. While lambasting their political opponents, the factsheet states, “At a time when more than 27 million Americans had a drug use disorder in 2022, and when we are losing one American to drug overdose every five minutes, House Republicans are proposing to rip away life-saving treatment for opioid use disorder.” 

The White House’s concerns are valid. From 1999 to 2021, nearly 645,000 people in the US overdosed and died using opioids. Opioid deaths have continued to increase during and after the Covid-19 pandemic sharply. 

These numbers are alarming. But they’re also misleading for two reasons. 

First, even if State Opioid Response grants are cut, the funding loss would be at most $500 million, a fraction of the recently approved $2.7 billion in financing through 2028. Overall, federal funding to address opioid misuse is not decreasing. 

Second, the number of lives lost to the opioid epidemic is even more jaw-dropping when considering how much we’ve already spent only to get to this point. 

Over the past six years, the US government spent nearly $8 billion to reduce opioid-related deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data finds no evidence these funds have saved lives. 

Further, most of these funds were spent during the COVID-19 pandemic when much of the country faced stay-at-home orders and other restrictions. Even then, opioid overdoses and deaths reached all-time highs.

What’s changed now that spending billions of dollars a year will curb a two-decade-long trend of widespread and increasing opioid misuse?

Sadly, the failure to spend more money to address public health woes is common, and it extends well beyond opioids. The US has spent over $1 trillion to fight the ongoing War on Drugs, where noticeably little progress has been made. 

The numbers don’t lie—spending vast amounts of money on drug addiction, opioid misuse, and other troubling issues provides little reassurance these problems will improve. If anything, recent history shows more federal funding results in more waste. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government purchased over 1.5 million doses of remdesivir—90 percent of the world’s supply—to help hospitalized patients recover from the Pandemic. Even then, misallocation problems forced some hospitals to ration treatment while others threw away their excess

Operation Warp Speed, which brought the country and world the first COVID-19 vaccines, cost at least $18 billion. About a year and a half after the first vaccine rollouts, over 82 million doses had to be thrown out due to improper storage and other costly mistakes. For context, the project’s ultimate goal was to make and administer 300 million vaccines

I don’t have a solution to the opioid epidemic. However, a great starting point for solving any problem of this size and devastation is recognizing what isn’t helping. Spending more money won’t.