The High, Hidden Cost of Gun Violence

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year treating shooting victims at hospitals.

Image
Shutterstock

Most of us have a strong emotional reaction to the stories of gun violence that we hear almost daily on the local and national news. But this issue especially hit home to me this year when two things happened.

First, I was called to sit on the homicide grand jury for the District of Columbia, where for one month I heard hours of testimony about horrific shootings in my own city.

Then a young person that I had tutored for years was shot as an innocent bystander, and spent two weeks in the hospital followed by weeks of physical therapy recovering from her wounds.

As a health services researcher concerned with issues of the cost of care and access to services by the underserved, I became intrigued with learning about the health costs of such violence for the victims themselves and taxpayers. I found that there have been few studies of this issue, so my colleagues and I sought to remedy that. A new issue brief, The Hospital Costs of Gun Violence, is the result of a new Urban Institute study on the actual financial price we pay for gun violence.

While the total cost of such care is hard to measure due to lack of readily available data, I found that national data are available on the cost of emergency department and hospital inpatient care. This allowed us to examine the most expensive part of health care for victims of gun violence: their hospital care.

In 2010 alone, 36,000 victims of firearm assaults went to the emergency room, and 25,000 were admitted to the hospital. The total cost of that medical treatment for one year came to $630 million. As a comparison point, total Medicaid expenditure for the single state of Wyoming in 2010 was just $534 million.

What’s more, 52 percent of those costs are for people with publicly funded health insurance (primarily Medicaid), and another 28 percent of costs went to the uninsured. This makes it clear that taxpayers pay the largest share of these costs through Medicaid or uncompensated care, although some costs are borne by other payers or the uninsured themselves.

These findings provide some new evidence for policymakers who are embroiled in two separate, politically contentious debates, one concerning gun control and one concerning the Affordable Care Act (or "Obamacare").

Under the insurance expansions that begin next month, millions more people—including many uninsured young males, who are often victims of gun violence— will receive Medicaid coverage.

As policymakers focus on how to contain health costs under an expanded program, our data point to the prevention of gun violence as a way to lower health costs, particularly those borne by taxpayers. It's a solution that would save taxpayers money and improve the lives of many young people.

Top image: Mariusz Niedzwiedzki /Shutterstock.com

This post originally appeared on the Urban Institute's Metrotrends blog, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Embry Howell is an experienced evaluator of initiatives that aim to improve the health of and health care services available to vulnerable groups, including low income pregnant women and children.