Oct 03, 2013

The Tab for Fun: Alcohol-related Injuries Cost Taxpayers Billions

Austin's 6th St. is one of the liveliest places to have a drink in the city. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.

Austin’s Sixth Street is one of the liveliest places to have a drink in the city. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.


By Amy Madden
For Reporting Texas

It’s no secret that Austinites enjoy their nights on the town, but what’s the cost of all that drinking, and who’s picking up the tab?

Austin recently landed at No. 5 on The Daily Beast’s 2012 list of the nation’s 25 drunkest cities. Using statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the market researcher Experian Marketing Services, the news website reported that Austinites consume an average of 14.6 drinks a month, that 18.4 percent of the population is classified as binge drinkers, and that another 5 percent are considered heavy drinkers.

The report doesn’t detail the economic costs associated with Austin’s culture of drinking. Taxpayer money is regularly used to subsidize the cost of alcohol-related incidents, and even viewed through the narrow prism of medical care, those costs are staggering. Even when you’re not involved, you’re paying.

“Just in this last year alone, two clients in my office have cost [the public] millions” in uncompensated medical care, says Lenore Shefman of the Shefman Law Group. “I’ve been doing this 13 years, and that’s two from last year alone.”

Shefman regularly deals with personal injury cases as a result of drunken driving. Though the economic costs associated with these cases vary widely – she’s seen as low as $39,000 in her own firm – it’s not unusual for them to be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions.

That’s just scratching the surface. Including costs for medical treatment, work loss, public services, court fees and loss of quality of life, drunken driving deaths and injuries have cost Texans well over $50 billion since 2006, according to statistics from the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a nonprofit that researches health and social issues.

Photo by Martin do Nasicmento

Photo by Martin do Nascimento.

“It’s pretty disturbing when you look at it that way,” says Toni Logan, a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Texas office. “You don’t necessarily think of those things.”

Austin has one of the highest per-capita incidences of DWI in Texas, and the city leads the state in serious injury crashes and serious injuries as a result of DWIs, according to 2012 statistics from the Texas Department of Transportation.

In 2010, medical care for the 16,875 people injured in drunken driving crashes in Texas carried an economic cost of $2.43 billion to the state and residents, according to the Pacific Institute study. That figure includes costs for medical treatment as well as transportation to the hospital.

Sgt. Don Rios with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office DWI Unit says that when making a DWI stop, his officers call an ambulance to the scene only in extreme cases.

“If they’re to the degree where they’re unconscious or unresponsive – their eyes are open but nobody’s home kind of thing and they can’t communicate – EMS is going to be called,” Rios says. “It definitely happens. On a weekly basis, sure.”

Otherwise, when emergency medical services are not called to the scene, arrested individuals are taken to jail and undergo a medical check there. If individuals need medical attention, they are taken to University Medical Center Brackenridge.

From July 2012 to June 2013, 1,121 patients who had a diagnosis of alcohol abuse were admitted for an inpatient stay at Seton Healthcare Family hospitals – the health system that operates UMC Brackenridge – after an accident or injury. There were also 3,519 outpatient visits – including emergency room visits – related to alcohol injuries and abuse.

Though Seton did not provide the number of uninsured or underinsured patients treated for alcohol-related injuries, taxpayer dollars are regularly used to cover those costs. In 2009 alone, Travis County taxpayers contributed almost $30 million to help St. David’s and Seton cover treatment costs for uninsured or underinsured patients, according to Central Health, the district responsible for levying taxes to finance health care services in Travis County.

“So [DWI] is a big thing in Austin and Travis County,” Rios says.

Texans regularly foot the bill for public services engaged by drunken drivers, with medical treatment being a small portion of the overall cost. With statistics from the Pacific Institute showing that drunken driving injuries and deaths cost Texans more than $8.5 billion a year on average, some say people ought to be paying more attention.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s devastating to the people that are affected by it. It’s hugely costly,” says Logan with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “Do [taxpayers] notice? Probably not really.”