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Is Public Funding for Drug and Alcohol Rehab Worth It?

hand holding a drug tablet

This topic is an emotional one for many Americans. While the clamor for increased healthcare funding has grown stronger than ever, there remains significant opposition within the US for healthcare subsidies comparable to those of other Western countries with Universal Healthcare. This opposition is even stronger and more emotional where substance addiction is involved, as it is problem that has touched virtually every American in one way or another.

In any case, substance abuse of all kinds has a real cost to society. In 2018, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) put that cost at around $600 billion annually. Given the rise in alcohol and drug misuse during the pandemic, the recent costs are likely to be substantially higher than this.

This cost is down to lost productivity, overdose deaths, accidents, as well as costs to the healthcare system.

Here at Boston Drug Treatment Centers, we understand that there are other hidden effects as well. When drug or alcohol use destroys families, this often leads to financial instability and additional physical and mental health problems. In real terms, these issues can lead to children of parents with drug issues being less likely to achieve their true potentials, which may further increase other societal costs.

Here are some common arguments for increasing public funding for substance rehab:

1.) It’s cheaper than incarceration

Though it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison, most studies indicate that drug rehabilitation is much cheaper than incarceration. Keeping an inmate in prison costs anywhere from $30,000 – $100,000 annually, while a year’s worth of rehab tends to cost $20,000 less annually on average. Even without taking the cost of psychotherapy into account, just a full year of methadone costs more or less $4,700 per patient, which is substantially cheaper than even the lowest annual incarceration costs.

Given the scale of the drug problem, Americans may save billions of dollars every year simply by prioritizing rehab over incarceration, especially for less dangerous drugs like cannabis. The latter point is made somewhat more strong by the fact that a majority of people in prison for drug crimes are considered nonviolent.

2.) It recovers cash for the economy

According to the NIH, while there is an expense associated with treating drug and alcohol problems, even conservative estimates show a $4 to $7 return for every dollar spent. These costs are just in crime reduction and expenses related to the criminal justice system.

It does not even include healthcare costs or the fact that people undergoing treatment tend to also continue generating value for the economy in terms of their productive output. It’s worth noting that outpatient programs are now the most common mode of drug and alcohol treatment, and these programs make it possible for patients to continue working. In contrast, they will not be able to create similar value for the economy if they were incarcerated.

3.) Investing in substance rehab reduces other healthcare costs

When including healthcare savings, the NIH says that perhaps every dollar spent on drug rehab and treatment may lead to a $12 return.

The main reason is that improved spending may prevent relatively minor drug and alcohol problems from spiraling out of control.

All things considered, serious alcohol and drug use disorders can be incredibly expensive to treat. Not only do they require an extraordinary amount of resources for addressing just the substance use disorder itself, quite often, but the patient has also likely developed other serious physical and mental health conditions that complicated treatment while presenting their own unique challenges.

Unfortunately, low investment in drug rehab and treatment forces the prioritization of more serious drug and alcohol problems. Available treatment is often inadequate due to low funding and often leads to lower success rates and worse health issues later on. In the meantime, less serious problems are ignored and tend to progress into worse ones down the road, by which time these issues become more expensive to treat.

By investing more into drug treatment and rehab and focusing on long-term outcomes over short-term savings, the hope is that these extreme healthcare costs would be avoided later on.

Conclusion

It seems that if state and federal governments want improvements in public welfare, additional investment in drug rehabs may deliver more bang for the buck. Using purely dollars and cents as a yardstick for value, it does seem that more public funding for drug and alcohol treatment can result in cost savings, at least according to the NIH.

This is not to say that there are no other external issues to consider. For instance, many Americans oppose the use of public funds for any healthcare expenses, or indeed, oppose taxation and “government meddling” of any kind. Whether or not those things are more important than a mentally and physically healthier, not to mention more financially well-off public is no doubt going to be a matter of endless debate between different Americans. Good luck, and be well!