Treating firearm-related injuries in the U.S. costs more than $1 billion annually, with public health programs like Medicaid picking up most of the tab, according to new Government Accountability Office estimates shared with POLITICO.
The assessment was requested by House and Senate Democrats last year and comes as the Biden administration is encouraging cities to spend unused Covid relief funds to address gun violence.
The nonpartisan GAO found gun violence accounts for about 30,000 hospital stays and about 50,000 emergency room visits annually. More than 15 percent of firearm injury survivors are also readmitted at least once after initial treatment, costing an additional $8,000 to $11,000 per patient. Because the majority of victims are poor, the burden largely falls on safety-net programs like Medicaid, including covering some of the care for the uninsured.
The report, the first of its kind from the watchdog agency, is based available data on caring for people who suffer non-fatal gun injuries each year. It's expected to fuel Democrats' calls for expanded background checks amid a stalemate on gun control legislation.
“Congress must do whatever it takes — including abolishing the filibuster if necessary—to address this public health crisis,” said New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, who led the coalition requesting the GAO study.
The report notes that the true annual health costs of gun use are likely much higher than $1 billion, since the GAO's total doesn’t include all of the treatment for long-term physical and mental injuries or expensive add-ons like ambulance rides. Other independent studies have estimated a total yearly cost as high as $2.8 billion.
Democrats have long sought to frame gun violence as a public health as well as criminal justice issue and have gotten an assist in recent years from medical groups that have waded into the debate.
The Democratic-controlled House passed two bills to expand background checks earlier this year. Yet gun control legislation has mostly failed to advance in the 50-50 Senate. Bipartisan talks on expanding background checks collapsed at the beginning of June after senators failed to close the gap on a compromise, though Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is pushing scaled-down legislation aimed at getting all of the upper chamber's Democrats on board.
President Joe Biden addressed gun violence on Monday in a meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland, state and local officials and a violence intervention expert, focusing on the administration's plan to encourage cities to use Covid relief to bolster police departments. Cracking down on illegal guns is also part of the Biden administration strategy, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which oversees licenses for gun sellers, still lacks a Senate-confirmed head.
Other Democrats who requested the GAO study, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois, keyed in on a finding that the people receiving costly medical care for gun injuries are disproportionately male, Black, poor and live in the South. The report found those victims often receive worse treatment “because of racial bias in the health care system.”
Federal health agencies for decades were effectively blocked from conducting such research by a budget rider known as the Dickey Amendment. In 2018, Congress passed language clarifying that while the agencies are barred from funding gun control advocacy, they weren’t banned from supporting research. Congress appropriated money specifically for that work a year later.
The House Appropriations committee is set to mark up a bill on Thursday that doubles the National Institutes of Health’s budget for “firearm injury and mortality prevention research” to $25 million.
Republicans have opposed the funding push, saying it injects gun politics into otherwise bipartisan federal health spending and raises the specter of health agencies engaging in anti-gun "propaganda."
Asked whether he supported increased federal funding for gun control research, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said that “what we should be funding is prosecutions for those who commit crimes using a gun.”
Democrats, meanwhile, insist that more research will lead to more action as bills to curb access to guns stall out on Capitol Hill.
“These findings pave the way for Congress to take up and pass evidence-based solutions to tackle the scourge of gun violence," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
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