Opioid drug deaths continued steep climb in 2016, says preliminary CDC data

An estimated 64,070 deaths recorded; meanwhile, private equity flows into addiction centers


A “provisional” count of opioid-related overdose deaths reached a new high in 2016, and above estimates by the New York Times earlier in the year attempting to match CDC’s projections. Mortality data can take a while to collect and confirm, as death certificates need to be reviewed at local and state levels, then reported to the federal government. A more authoritative count is expected from the Centers for Disease Control later this year.

At any rate, the CDC estimate, found in the agency’s National Center for Health Statistics, shows that overdose deaths jumped from 52,898 in 2015 to 64,070 in 2016. The major component of the increase was “synthetic opioids excluding methadone,” which would include most types of prescription opioids and fentanyl, which is showing up in both street heroin and in pills (many of them counterfeited to appear as prescription drugs)—this category recorded some 10,200 increased deaths. A July 2016 report from the Drug Enforcement Administration noted that the US “is in the midst of a fentanyl crisis, with law enforcement reporting and public health data indicating higher availability of fentanyls, increased seizures of fentanyls, and more known overdose deaths from fentanyls than at any other time since the drugs were first created in 1959.”

Meanwhile a Wall St. Journal report, citing private-equity market research, found that addiction treatment centers are fast becoming a desirable investment opportunity. Capital inflows, for both acquisitions and expansion of treatment networks, totaled $2.9 billion in 2016, up from $11.4 million in 2011. Converting non-profit centers to for-profit ones is one goal; another is simply to build or expand more treatment centers. The addiction therapy market is evolving; while around half of centers have stuck with detoxification and abstinence regimens, increased insurance coverage and federal funding is increasing the use of medication addiction therapies, including a variety of drugs such as methadone or buprenorphine-based drugs (and an increasing number of those are being brought onto the market by pharma companies.)