USA - Employers Must Take Active Role in Opioid Crisis Prevention

Employers are being urged to do more to prevent opioid misuse in their workforce, after President Trump declared a public health emergency, and labelled the national opioid epidemic as the "worst drug crisis in American history.”

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) found that over 42,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016. 40 percent of these deaths involved prescription painkillers. In a 2014 study, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 4.3 million Americans were engaged in non-medical use of prescription opioids, and approximately 1.9 million Americans had a “use disorder”.

The National Safety Council, a non-profit chartered by Congress, has previously stated that 7 in 10 employers have been affected by employees’ prescription drug use, through incidents such as absenteeism, positive drug tests, and reduced job performance. These issues have a direct impact on productivity and profit. It's believed the opioid crisis cost the U.S. economy $95 billion in 2016, and according to a recent study conducted by Altarum Institute, the annual cost of the crisis rose to around $115 billion in 2017.

In the Large Employers' 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey, The National Business Group on Health (NBGH) looked at how businesses plan to address these workplace challenges, and found that 80 percent of major employers are concerned about abuse of opioids, with only 19 percent feeling “extremely prepared” to deal with prescription drug misuse at work.

"The opioid crisis is a growing concern among large employers," said Brian Marcotte, NBGH president and CEO. "The misuse and abuse of opioids could negatively impact employee productivity, workplace costs, the availability of labor, absenteeism and disability costs, workers' compensation claims, as well as overall medical expenses."

Corey Rhyan, a senior healthcare research analyst at Altarum Institute, pointed to several strategies employers can use to combat the ongoing crisis:

  • Offer prescription drug disposal sites.
  • Support friends, family, carers and co-workers of people who may be suffering from addiction.
  • Provide training and education in the workplace to increase awareness and recognition of opioid abuse.
  • Work directly with health plans and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) to address the issue by limiting the quantity of pills on initial prescriptions, and limiting coverage of opioids to a specific network of pharmacies.
  • Offer more opioid-free alternatives for pain management, such as physical therapy.

“Employers are negatively impacted by the crisis, but can and will be at the forefront of implementing pivotal solutions to prevent and treat opioid addictions,” Rhyan stated. “Public policies should seek to give employers the resources they need to be an active and engaged ally in the fight against addiction and allow them flexibility where needed to customize their responses.”

Showing that employers are starting to take a different approach to these issues, many organizations have begun to reconsider their zero-tolerance abuse policies for employees, while also providing a range of treatment and recovery options. In fact, 70 percent of all U.S. companies have established Employee Assistance Programs to help workers with substance misuse issues, according to the National Safety Council.

Although current efforts are to be commended, there is still more to do. In a closing statement, Mark Takano insisted that “strong sentiment and feelings of support are not enough.” The Workforce Protections Subcommittee member reminded hearing attendees that American employers “must step up to the plate and implement strong policies that support national efforts to address substance abuse.”

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