medication

Research

Opioid Use Higher for Disability Applicants

With the nation still in the midst of an opioid crisis, a new study provides the first estimate of opioid use among people who apply for disability.

One out of every four applicants used opioids in 2017 – below the peak in 2012 but still significantly more than in the general population, according to researchers at Mathematica and the U.S. Social Security Administration.

And the researchers may be underestimating the extent of opioid use. Their data come from Social Security’s disability application forms. The forms ask applicants to list their prescriptions, including opioids taken for musculoskeletal pain such as a bad back, as well as their non-prescription drug use, and the stigma around use and abuse may encourage underreporting.

To estimate opioid use required creating a database because none existed. The researchers mined the text fields in each disability application using machine learning to find information about opioid use and then entered the information into the database.

Some interesting demographic trends emerged from the study. Opioid use is most prevalent in middle age, at around 30 percent of disability applicants in their 40s and 50s. “This is notable,” the researchers said, because if Social Security grants their requests for benefits, they “may remain on the [disability rolls] for 25 years.”

In a breakdown by education levels, the biggest opioid users had attended college but didn’t get a degree. Women’s use exceeded men’s throughout the study’s 10-year period, mirroring the population as a whole. And a state-by-state breakdown shows that applicants’ opioid use fell across the nation during that time. But Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, and Nevada still had particularly high rates in 2017.

How do opioids affect individual decisions to apply for disability? What does this mean for Social Security’s caseloads? And how does the users’ health change over time after they start receiving benefits?

This study lays a foundation for answering questions like these in future research.

To read this study, authored by April Yanyuan Wu, Denise Hoffman, and Paul O’Leary, see “Trends in Opioid Use among Social Security Disability Applicants.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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