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Firefighting: the broker’s role in battling the opioid epidemic

The costs of opioid abuse on the workplace

Absenteeism, presenteeism, lost productivity and soaring health care costs are just some of the ways opioid abuse can significantly impact businesses. Consider:

  • Workers with a pain medication use disorder miss an average of 29 days per year, according to a 2017 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study.
  • Opioid abuse costs employers approximately $10 billion from absenteeism and presenteeism alone.
  • According to a Johns Hopkins study, workers’ compensation claim costs for employees who were prescribed just one opioid were, on average, three times greater than workers who had similar claims but were not prescribed opioids.

What’s even more concerning is that it’s likely these statistics will continue to worsen if underlying mental health concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are left unchecked. Numerous reports have highlighted how the pandemic has fueled increases in alcohol and drug abuse.

In February 2021, the American Medical Association reported that last year, at least 40 states had an increase in opioid overdose fatalities, which were already occurring at alarming rates before COVID-19. Mental health experts have also seen increased feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety during the pandemic, which can all be triggers for opioid abuse.


Steps to take

Because the pandemic has forced many of us to work from home rather than in a central location, noticing that an employee might be struggling with opioid abuse or addiction takes more concerted effort today. However, even in a workday filled with virtual meetings and conference calls, a trained supervisor or manager can learn to spot employee work performance issues such as tardiness, missed deadlines or changes in attitude or behavior that could be triggered by opioid abuse.

While a lot can be learned from simple observation, there are other qualitative and quantitative approaches employers can consider to assess drug use prevalence in their workplace, ranging from self-report surveys to drug testing. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers employers many effective tools, along with ways to determine an organization’s strengths and weaknesses in managing identified issues.

Training and educating managers and supervisors on how to properly approach employees whom they suspect may be struggling also plays a key role in workplace prevention. Help your clients develop policies that clearly outline when and how to lead an employee to services, such as a wellness vendor, employee assistance program or telemedicine; when, how and why drug testing might be needed and/or administered; and what the role of every employee is when it comes to maintaining a safe workplace.


Read the data

Clues to employee substance abuse also lie within an organization’s human resources and health care data. Brokers and advisors can help clients look for:

  • Abrupt increases in the use of PTO, vacation, sick time, and even FMLA requests
  • Upward trends in workplace accidents
  • Sustained or increased opioid-related claims following an employee injury or surgery

For example, if an employee continues renewing an opioid prescription for lower back pain, that claims information will show up in health plan data, thereby enabling the employer to take action before a possible overuse issue becomes an addiction. Review claims data regularly for such markers.

Once issues are identified, employers, consultants and vendor partners can work together to ensure plan design and programs address employees’ underlying physical health conditions while also mitigating opioid risks. This will help your clients manage their health care spend, as well as generate the best health outcome for employees.


Other ways to support your clients

As a broker, be sure to share with your clients the best communications resources at your disposal to support drug addiction and abuse prevention across an enterprise: new-hire and open-enrollment communication, wellness education materials and vendors offering telemedicine, EAP and mental health resources. Additionally, when brokers understand an employer’s unique needs, they can become adept at translating confusing benefits information to employees in ways that encourage workers to enroll in employer-sponsored services.

Taking the proactive approach one step further, brokers can make themselves available to assist clients in writing policies focused on drug prevention in the workplace. Such policies empower employers to stay in better touch with their workforce and, consequently, experience better employee engagement with employer-sponsored interventions.


Help employees with abuse prevention at home

According to a 2017 study from JAMA Surgery, 70% of the opioids prescribed for post-surgical pain management go unused—and the family medicine cabinet is a prime target for people who are tempted to abuse the drug. That’s why employer-sponsored wellness programs that include opioid management initiatives can play a role in stemming potential medication misuse.

The key is providing employees safe, home-based disposal options. Studies have shown that a majority of consumers report using a variety of unsafe methods to manage their leftover medications, from holding on to them, to flushing medications down the toilet, to tossing them in household trash, which can harm the environment. Plus, a recent Portland State University study demonstrates that more public education on proper drug disposal is needed; 64% of people the study surveyed admitted that they
couldn’t explain why safe disposal of unused pharmaceuticals matters.

Fortunately, employees can be encouraged to deactivate and dispose of unused pain medications in the privacy of their homes, thereby taking those unused drugs out of circulation for possible abuse.

Encourage your clients to distribute drug deactivation and disposal pouches that are manufactured specifically for scientifically proven, safe, at-home drug disposal. Combined with an employee education and communications program around safe drug storage and disposal, such an effort can help employers save as much as 25 cents per member for health plans by reducing claims associated with opioid use disorder.


There’s no time to wait

Today’s pandemic is like gasoline that’s been dumped onto the inferno we know as the opioid epidemic. Not only do employers and their health plan enrollees spend approximately $1.4 billion to cover costs associated with opioid addiction, countless lives are also being threatened and lost. Now is the time for benefits advisors and their employer clients to find and implement high return programs designed to stem opioid misuse in the workforce.