Uninsured People Are Twice as Likely to Misuse Painkillers

Insurance status is an even stronger predictor of painkiller misuse than poverty level.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Overdose deaths in America are surging, fueled by widespread addiction to opioids—a class of compounds that includes prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin, heroin, and fentanyl. Last year’s death toll likely topped 59,000 people, according to a recent New York Times analysis. That’s a 19 percent jump from the previous year.

The latest edition of the Behavioral Health Barometer, a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), sheds light on who is abusing drugs—and who has access to treatment.

(Note: the charts below have been lightly edited for readability. See the original versions here.)

SAMHSA, Behavioral Health Barometer, Volume 4

Roughly 12.5 million Americans over age 11 misused prescription painkillers in 2015—meaning they used a prescription that wasn’t their own or took more than the doctor ordered. Strikingly, rates of painkiller misuse were nearly double among uninsured Americans. “Uninsured people may not have access to pain treatment,” explained Dr. Beth Han, a researcher at SAMHSA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. “They’re more likely to get it from their families and friends.” As the chart below shows, more than half of those who misused painkillers bought or took the drugs from a relative or friend. Sixty-two percent reported doing so to relieve physical pain. 

Public health advocates worry that repealing Obamacare would further reduce access to both pain management and addiction treatment services

SAMHSA, Behavioral Health Barometer, Volume 4

An additional 828,000 Americans reported using heroin, which many drug users transition to for a cheaper, stronger high after having become addicted to painkillers. (For more background on the opioid epidemic, check out our explainer.) As with painkiller misuse, heroin use was most common among young adults, men, the uninsured, and those living below the poverty line.

SAMHSA, Behavioral Health Barometer, Volume 4

Overall, only 11 percent of those with a drug addiction received treatment for it. But the report showed a sharp rise in those receiving substance abuse treatment—a change that reflects both the increasing population in need of such treatment and increasing access to it, particularly in states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare. Use of buprenorphine, a medication that treats opioid addiction, more than doubled between 2011 and 2015.

SAMHSA, Behavioral Health Barometer, Volume 4


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend