Hidden Costs: Gun Violence, The Healthcare Aftermath, and Who Pays?

This article is part of a series on Gun Violence and the Economics of Well-Being, produced as part of The Toll: The Roots and Costs of Gun Violence in Philadelphia, a solutions-focused series from the collaborative reporting project with Resolve Philly. Love Now Media’s reporting focuses on the aftermath of gun violence, the cost of healthcare, wellness, mental health, and community healing. Love Now Media is one of more than 20 news organizations collaboratively reporting on solutions to poverty and Philadelphia’s push towards economic mobility. You can find other stories in the series here.

By Denise Clay-Murray

The City of Philadelphia takes a big financial hit every time someone is injured or killed due to gun violence. Much of those costs are borne by the city itself.  

Right now, Philadelphia’s city government is at the tail end of budget season.

After a year where the COVID-19 pandemic caused a $450 million deficit and budget cuts so deep that entire city departments were erased, the city was able to take a look at the its gun violence problem and add some much needed funding to prevention and wellness efforts thanks to the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP).

Philadelphia received $1.4 billion in ARP funds and one of the things that Mayor Jim Kenney and the members of City Council immediately agreed on was that some of that money should go toward fighting a problem that not even a global pandemic could keep down.

While the Kenney Administration and City Council differed on the amount — Kenney initially wanted to add just $18 million to the $35 million that the city had already planned to spend, while Council felt $100 million would be a good start — the final $5.2 billion plan includes $155 million in anti-violence spending.

Under what’s being called the Philly PEACE Budget, much of that $155 million focuses not only on preventing gun violence, but using a comprehensive approach to something that we often look at through a criminal justice lens alone. Organizations that provide  such things as trauma counseling, safe havens for children and families, and job training and placement will get the help they’ve been asking for, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, chair of Council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence, said.

“We often don’t talk about the root causes of why a young person decides to pick up a gun in the first place,” he said. “We know hurt people hurt people. Our young people are dealing with post-traumatic stress due to all this senseless gun violence. How are they dealing with their grief? How are they expressing themselves? We really have to look at this through a public health lens. It’s really about our approach and how we reimagine how we look at gun violence prevention. We have to do things differently.”

Toward that end, $49 million will go to community groups like Neighborhood Networks, Every Murder Is Real (EMIR) and others that are providing these services, Johnson said. 

There will also be $500,000 in community investment grants in addition to $28 million for afterschool and summer programming for the city’s children. 

In a letter that was sent to the Kenney Administration by 13 Councilmembers — a veto-proof majority — Council outlined the problem.

“Homicide is the leading cause of death among Black men aged 15-24,” according to the letter. “Over 800 youth have been shot since January 2020. Gun violence is everywhere, but most of it is concentrated in a handful of disinvested, Black and Brown communities. Such unprecedented violence demands an unprecedented response.”

But while the loss of life was the main focus of the request, there was also a sense of urgency due to how expensive Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic has become.

In a study done as part of the creation of the City’s Roadmap for Safer Communities in 2018, the average gun related homicide costs the city $1.4 million due to such things as medical expenses, lost earnings, damage to property including cars or homes, public safety costs and costs related to the criminal justice system.

Based on the number of deaths in 2021 — 250 as of press time — the amount of money deaths from gun violence would cost the city at this moment would be about $350 million. Non-fatal shootings are also expensive, each costing taxpayers over $45,000 in lost wages and medical treatment.

Much of that money — medical expenses are generally paid for through Medicare or Medicaid — comes from taxpayers.  

Looking at the issue of gun violence and recovering from it through a holistic or public health lens hasn’t been the easiest thing to do, according to Dr. Jessica Beard, a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital. 

Dr. Beard, a Stoneleigh Foundation fellow and recently named Director of Research at the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, has dealt with the complications of trying to study gun violence. While studying how to repair the injuries guns can cause is okay, studying the impact of guns themselves is not, she said.

“For a long time, there hasn’t been any support for the study of gun violence,” Dr. Beard said. “This is for many reasons, one of which is political. Usually in public health, research is funded on diseases according to their disease burden. Gun violence receives only a fraction of the research funding it should for it’s disease burden.” 

That might be changing for Dr. Beard and other researchers like her. For the last 25 years, the Centers for Disease Control was prevented from funding research on gun violence. The CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) split $25 million for research in 2020, but lawmakers are hoping to increase that in this year’s federal budget.

Next: The Helpers…and who helps them.