Opioid epidemic wreaks financial havoc in Atlanta suburbs

The emotional cost was grueling. And eventually, the financial cost became unbearable.

Lynn Massingill, 53, of Coweta County, said she’s spent tens of thousands of dollars to help two close relatives fight addictions to Percocet, a painkiller that combines oxycodone and acetaminophen.

Unable to kick their habits, they’ve constantly come to her for support.

“I don’t really have much now in savings,” she said. “But when it’s your family, it is hard to say no. I won’t let them be without food.”

The opioid epidemic is taking a grim toll in overdose deaths – more than the number caused by car crashes or guns. But as Massingill's story shows it is also ravaging family finances and even, according to some experts, becoming a drag on the U.S. economy.

The epidemic has drained savings, wrecked retirement plans, pushed some homeowners into foreclosure and kept workers from earning a steady paycheck.

“This is an economic story, the story of the year,” said Jeff Korzenik, chief investment strategist for Fifth Third Bank. “Maybe it’s the story of the decade.”

In Georgia, the danger and the damage are worst in the suburbs. Cobb County, for instance, was second only to Fulton in the number of overdose deaths last year.

Ty, 27, grew up in Cobb’s Powder Springs. He started using heroin six years ago.

“Every dollar I made I spent on opiates,” said Ty, who declined to provide his last name because of his fear that the stigma attached to the addiction would hinder his ability to find a job.

The AJC has agreed to protect the identities of some of the people in this story who have struggled with addiction.

His drug expenses quickly outpaced his income, and the cost rippled to his family. When he lost an apartment for not paying rent, he moved in with his grandmother. But he was more than just a free boarder. He sometimes simply took her money. Sometimes he lied so she’d give it willingly.

“I’d tell her a story about my car being messed up and she’d give me $300 and it would be gone in two days,” he said.

Legal costs

When people are arrested for drug offenses, many families find it hard to walk away and incur big legal costs.

“In the past ten years, I’ve probably spent two or two-and-a-half years in the county jail,” Ty said. “My grandmother bonded me out of jail ten times at least. Cost her $200 to $600 each time.”

Even people who eventually beat the addiction often suffer relapses before they succeed, said Kim Keheley Frye, a Marietta attorney.

“You can almost guarantee a heroin addict is going to relapse. For the expense, it’s kind of a multiplier,” she said.

A possession charge for say, heroin, typically costs up to $10,000. And a user who gets swept up in the arrest of a big dealer can be charged under organized crime statutes. Hiring a lawyer to fight that typically costs up to $25,000.

The opioid epidemic is ravaging family finances and even affecting the broader economy. AP

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Treatment, too, is hugely expensive.

After years of addiction, dealing and stealing from her family, Erinn Warren went to a Statesboro treatment hospital. It cost $30,000 for 30 days, after which she moved to a “sober living” facility with a $1,500-a-month tab.

Warren, 30, had grown up in what she describes as a middle class home in Marietta. She drank from a young age and was introduced to OxyContin at 16.

After cleaning up during her expensive treatments, she went back to drugging — and through the costly cycle again.

Her family hit hard financial times. It’s hard to know how much was caused by huge bills for Erinn’s treatments, how much by family dysfunction and how much by a tough economy, but the plunge was steep: bankruptcy, foreclosure, the end of a marriage.

“What did I do to my parents’ marriage or their health problems?” she asked. “I think everything is related.”

Stealing for drugs

She stole their cash, pawned their jewelry. She often used up to $1,000 worth of opiates in a day.

After overdosing and being brought back from the death, she finally got clean. It took months of treatment and yet another hospital stint.

“I’m still paying Kennesaw Hospital $50 a month,” she said. “For three more years now.”

Families with substance abusers also find themselves spending more on cars – replacing them or paying for insurance after numerous accidents.

Justin Jackson, 28, went into the Navy addicted and emerged just as hooked. He went through hundreds of dollars a day in illicit drugs, paying for most of it by selling or delivering narcotics.

By the time he got clean, he had wrecked a car, two motorcycles and a truck he ran into a tree.

Now he manages a thrift store at The Zone, a Marietta community center for people recovering from addiction.

Misuse of legal, prescription drugs like OxyContin costs the nation at least $78.5 billion a year, according to a study by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

“But for the opioid epidemic as a whole, this is a very conservative estimate,” said Curtis Florence, a doctor and lead health economist for the center, part of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control.

And note, he said: Heroin, one of the most destructive pieces of the epidemic, isn’t figured into the calculation.

“The cost of buying drugs is not in our data, unless it is paid by the insurer. And the study is about prescription opioid use … not about illicit drugs.”

Economists lately have seen signs of the impact in broader metrics, such as credit card delinquencies, savings levels and a historically low labor participation rate.

Christine Farnum, 51, a former occupational therapist in Marietta, became addicted to pain medication after an operation when she was young, building up to a $300-a-week habit.

She has been in rehab 13 times, she said. She is clean now, but she doesn’t work and is one of more than 10.6 million Americans receiving disability for her physical and mental problems.

Drag on productivity

No one knows how many workers are on the job impaired, or how often companies lose worker time to a family member’s addiction. That affects productivity.

“Sometimes parents have to take time off to make sure their kid goes to a doctor’s appointment, [or] that he goes to court,” said Missy Owen, executive director of the Davis Direction Foundation, a Marietta organization she and her husband founded to fight addiction.

She discovered in the summer of 2013 that one of her sons was addicted.

Missy Owen founded the Marietta-based Davis Direction Foundation after losing her son to opioid overdose. Her foundation opened The Zone in 2016 as “a safe place for all people to seek, maintain, support and enjoy long-term recovery free from substance use disorder.”

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He stole from the family, pawning things and searching for a score, she said. “So I sometimes had to leave the office to go home to try and find my son.”

He died from a heroin overdose in March 2014.

Labor participation, which measures the ratio of people in the workforce to the total population, has fallen since 1999. It has risen a little in the past two years but is still far below its earlier levels.

Korzenik, the Fifth Third Bank economist, said that if the rate was the same as in 2003, adjusted for population growth and baby boomer retirements, “we would have 3 million more people working.”

He believes half to three-quarters of the difference is drug related – or 1.5 million to 2.25 million people.

“That is a troubling number,” Korzenik said.

It jibes with government estimates of the extent of the epidemic. More than 12.5 million people are using opioids for non-medical purposes, with 2 to 3 million fully addicted, according to estimates from Department of Health and Human Services.

The issue of missing workers is not just a statistical curiosity. An acute labor shortage can dampen or even kill an expansion, Korzenik said.

“This will cause the business cycle to end. Every business should care about this.”

Close to home

The financial pain is most tangible for those closest to the crisis.

One Roswell woman said she frets about her grown daughter, clean for six months or so and staying out of state in yet another recovery facility.

She wanted to remain anonymous, partly to protect the company she founded and to protect her daughter’s privacy.

She has picked up the tabs for a week in detox, for longer stays in rehabilitation hospitals, for devices that undercut the need for drugs, and for medicines that repair the damage.

And then paid them again. And again.

A typical detox facility costs $7,500 a week. A rehab hospital runs from $15,000 to twice that for a month. She once paid $130,000 for a three-month stay.

“They know they are yanking at your heart strings,” she said. “You’ll pay whatever it is.”

All in all, she thinks she has spent more than $450,000 on treatments for her daughter’s addiction.

“I have to think about my retirement. I can’t spend everything I have,” she said and paused. “But I would.”


Drug overdose deaths, 2016/number per 100,000 residents

Fulton, 359/12

Cobb, 307/14

Gwinnett, 169/7

DeKalb, 146/7

Cherokee, 96/14

Paulding, 73/17

Clayton, 70/9

Source: County Health Rankings, University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute

Typical cost of… 

Month stay in rehab hospital: $15,000 - $30,000

Week in "half-way" or "three-quarter" house: $1,000 - $1,500

One shot, Vivitrol, which blocks opioid high: $1,200 - $1,600

Legal expenses, defense against charge of heroin possession: $3,000 - $10,000

Tenth-gram of heroin: $10 - $20

One pill, 30 m.g., oxycodone: $30 - $50


AJC Business reporter Michael E. Kanell keeps you updated on the latest news about jobs, housing and consumer issues in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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