Lung Disease Among U.S. Workers Costs Economy Billions: CDC Study

Asthma and other lung conditions among workers in the United States lead to billions of dollars in medical expenses each year, according to the findings of a new federal study.

In a report published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers with the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate costs for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) reached more than $12 billion in care costs every year during a four-year study period. The findings were part of the agency’s July 3 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (PDF).

CDC researchers analyzed data from Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys from 2011 to 2015. During that time, 8 million U.S. workers needed asthma care at least once and 7 million needed at least one episode of COPD care. Annual expenses for workers in the U.S. were $7 billion for asthma care and $5 billion for COPD between 2011 and 2015.

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COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that obstructs the airflow from the lungs causing wheezing, breathing difficulty, cough, and mucus. It is caused by long-term cigarette smoking, exposure to particulate matter in air pollution, and exposure to gaseous irritants like chemicals and fumes from manufacturing occupations. It is more common among people over 40 years old.

COPD is a progressive, irreversible disease with no known cure. It can severely limit a person’s physical activity, but also normal day-to-day activities. More than 3 million people are diagnosed with COPD in the U.S. every year.

Exposures at the workplace lead to as much as 44% of asthma cases and 50% of COPD cases in adults.

Many government and public service jobs have higher rates of COPD because of the frequent exposure to irritants. These jobs include firefighters, police officers, and correctional officers. These occupations have the highest annual per person costs for asthma and COPD.

The study also noted prescription drug costs were the majority of asthma expenditures, accounting for $5 billion annually.

Inpatient visits accounted for the largest share of COPD spending with $2 billion annually. The average cost of an inpatient visit for asthma was more than $8,000 per visit and $1,800 for COPD.

Private insurance paid more than 60% of worker’s asthma costs, or roughly $4 billion. It also covered roughly 60% of workers COPD costs, or $3 billion.

“The results suggest that renewed efforts are needed to reduce lung disease risks in the workplace and improve patient care to help reduce costs,” CDC researchers warned.

The researchers emphasized the need for early identification of lung diseases as well as the implementation of efforts to reduce workplace exposures and establish interventions to reduce exposure. They said this could help lead to an overall healthier workforce as well as reduced economic impacts from asthma and COPD among workers.

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