How employers and plan sponsors can save the U.S. workforce from opioids

Opioid use has reached epidemic proportions over the past decade, becoming one of America’s highest-priority public health issues. With opioid abuse spiraling out of control, lawmakers, regulators, and health professionals are scrambling to better understand key drivers of this issue and develop an effective action plan. Although the devastating impact of opioids on families and communities is well known, less focus has been given to how it affects the workplace and the role that employers and health care plan sponsors can play in combating it.

Opioids’ impact on America’s workforce

Opioid use is surging across the country, leading to an increasing number of drug-related deaths. This is largely an American problem, as America consumes 75 percent of the world’s opioids supply yet makes up just five percent of the world’s population. Of the 64,000 deaths from overdose in 2016, two-thirds were related to opioid overdoses. The oversupply and abuse of legal prescription pain relievers is at the heart of this crisis.

There is a misconception that opioid-related deaths occur disproportionately among youth. However, opioid misuse and related deaths occur most frequently within the working age population — those between 25 and 54 — meaning many people are using opioids while on the job. From a safety and work-quality point of view, opioid misuse is a significant challenge to both America’s workforce and to employers at large.

Another challenge is that of cost. Overuse of opioids contributes to health care costs of $8,600 per year on average in health care spending per person. This additional cost is severely burdening employers and plan sponsors, both of whom already pay annual premiums of $18,764 for employer-sponsored family health coverage, with workers on average paying $5,714 in 2017.

Employers and plan sponsors are already positioned to help

The power of employers and plan sponsors to address this crisis lies in the fact that most opioid addictions stem from medical prescriptions for pain relief. Plan sponsors have access to the pharmacy and medical care data of all members — meaning they can see who is using pain medication, such as opioids. Employers are also well positioned to identify potential opioid abuse, with side effects often noticeable in the workplace, such as reduced clarity and poor judgment, as well as changes in work product, behavior, and personal appearance.

With this widely unknown power in their hands, plan sponsors and employers must go above and beyond to not only educate themselves on opioids and the signs of abuse, but also to act on them.

What employers and plan sponsors can do

Beyond becoming better informed, a crucial step employers must take in order to address the opioid crisis is to create a company culture where individuals feel comfortable seeking help. One important tactic for achieving this is implementing new or enhancing existing employee assistance programs, which enable individuals to privately access help for a variety of personal concerns. From there, more targeted programs, such as ones that provide oversight and drug management, can help in providing support to employees using and abusing opioids.

An effective opioid oversight program needs to be tailored to the needs of both new opioid users and those who have been on long-term opioid treatment for pain management. For new users, the program should be centered on early intervention that helps avoid addiction, while for long-term users, it should focus on providing a structured support system to help individuals manage the conditions leading to opioid use and misuse. A good opioid oversight program, however, goes beyond just providing support — it also works with employers and contracted pharmacies to flag when an employee fills multiple opioid prescriptions written by different doctors, implements a medical review process before enabling refills, and monitors prescriptions and dosages to help support physician-directed intervention programs.

The opioid crisis affects individuals nationwide, people like you and me, tearing families apart, upending communities and compromising our current and future workforce. Employers and plan sponsors are uniquely positioned to play a key role in addressing this epidemic. By educating themselves, utilizing resources they already possess and taking action to maintain a safe working environment, employers and plan sponsors have the potential to be the unlikely heroes in ending the opioid epidemic, and — most importantly — in saving lives.

A. Bartley Bryt is chief medical officer, Brighton Health Plan Solutions.

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