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Opioid abuse is soaring amid the pandemic: how to help turn the tide

This year’s workplace upheavals have challenged HR and benefits professionals in ways no one could have imagined; and pandemic-related burdens to employers continue to emerge.



  • Experts have estimated that the COVID-19 crisis will lead more Americans to suffer from mental illness – leading to higher levels of drug and alcohol abuse. In fact, a Well Being Trust report released earlier this year estimated 75,000 Americans could die from drug, alcohol misuse, or suicide as a result of the pandemic.
  • The White House drug policy office shows an 11.4 % year-over-year increase in drug overdose fatalities for the first four months of 2020.
  • Before the pandemic, absenteeism and presenteeism tied to opioid abuse cost employers $10 billion annually, and companies spent twice as much in healthcare expenses for opioid users, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM).
  • In 2020, opioid overdose rates are up compared to the first half of 2019. Overdoses nationally jumped 18% in March compared with last year, 29% in April and 42% in May, according to the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program. This sharp increase is attributed to feelings of isolation, fear of unemployment and other pandemic-related stressors.

Given the breadth of today’s opioid crisis, it’s likely that these statistics encompass nearly every employer, its workforce and their dependents; and the responsibility to support their health frequently falls on the employer’s shoulders. Unfortunately, many corporate health and wellness programs don’t include the support needed to deal with addiction, or the resources and education to prevent addiction from occurring in the first place.


Related: Employers can curb the rate of opioid addiction


What’s more, with the rise in drug abuse and associated health issues, coupled with other unanticipated employer-sponsored health costs like COVID-19 testing, HR professionals can expect plan renewals in the coming years to be anything but easy.


The good news is that there are low-cost, practical steps HR and benefits professionals can take now to mitigate some of these consequences. Having an integrated approach to preventing substance abuse and addiction, as well as supporting employees who need help, will enhance overall employee well-being and positively impact an organization’s bottom line. Here are steps to contemplate:


Use data to identify red flags

Because the pandemic has forced many of us to work from remote locations, rather than in a central place where face-to-face interactions are commonplace, noticing that someone might be struggling with drug abuse or addiction takes a more concerted effort today. Beyond classic HR identifiers such as behavior changes, frequent sick days or missed deadlines, it’s more critical than ever that employers rely on their data to spot red flags.


For example, one of the biggest problems with opioids is that they mask the underlying cause of pain, rather than fix it, which can lead to overuse, abuse and addiction. If an employee keeps renewing an opioid prescription for lower back pain, the claims information will show up in the health plan data, enabling the employer to take action before a perceived overuse issue becomes an addiction. Review claims data regularly for such markers. Once they are identified, employers, consultants and vendor partners should work together to ensure plan design and programs address the employees’ underlying health conditions, while managing cost, thereby generating the best health outcome for the employee and the best value for everyone’s dollar.


As with health plan data, performance data also is invaluable to helping employers spot potential abuse or addiction issues within their workforce. Data based on performance indicators, such as a drop in productivity or increased absenteeism, can be used to identify employees who may need intervention.


Implement opioid management initiatives within existing wellness programs

Among programs specific to preventing and managing addiction in the workplace:

  1. Drug abuse and addiction prevention involves more than dispensing fewer pills. According to a study from JAMA Surgery, 70% of the opioids prescribed for post-surgical pain management go unused, thereby making them available for abuse. Employers can play an important role in helping employees take those unused drugs out of circulation by providing a simple disposal option in the workplace. Rather than encouraging workers to flush their unused prescriptions down the sink or toilet, or toss them in the trash (both harmful to the environment and, if found, opens up the possibility for misuse), consider distributing drug deactivation and disposal pouches manufactured specifically for scientifically proven, safe, at-home drug disposal, such as the Deterra System. Combined with an employee education and communications program around safe drug storage and disposal, such an effort can lead to as much as 25 cents per member per month savings for health plans by reducing claims associated with opioid use disorder.
  2. Work with insurers or vendor to enable access to alternative pain management programs. These approaches can provide plan participants with a variety of options to treat pain without the use of expensive prescription drugs and reduce the probability of future expenses for addiction treatment.
  3. Make employee communication and education programs about drug abuse and addiction readily available through a variety of channels. Quality, low-cost program templates and resources such as videos, presentations, infographics and more are available through the National Safety Council.


The broker’s role in preventing abuse and addiction

Brokers play a key role in helping employers manage opioid abuse and addiction in the workplace by helping to structure health plans and employer-based administrative technology platforms that are efficient, compliance-oriented and are structured to meet budget – leveraging long-standing and valued relationships with health plan carriers and PBMs. In addition, when brokers know and understand an employer’s unique needs, they can become adept in translating confusing benefits information to employees in ways that encourage workers to enroll in employer-sponsored services that meet their unique needs.


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.


Finally, make yourself available to assist clients in creating corporate policies specifically focused on drug prevention in the workplace. Such policies will empower employers to stay in better touch with employees and, consequently, they’ll experience better employee engagement with employer-sponsored interventions. Effective policies provide for training and education for managers and supervisors on how to properly approach employees whom they suspect may be struggling. Such policies also clearly outline when and how to lead an employee to services such as a wellness vendor, EAP 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.


Of course, policies are only as effective as an organization’s leadership. Destigmatizing addiction must start at the top and be pushed throughout the entire organization. Be sure to work with the appropriate executives to establish and inculcate a corporate value statement that destigmatizes addition and supports addiction prevention and treatment.


Impact on the bottom line

Private insurance covers nearly four in 10 non-elderly adults with opioid addiction, translating into employers and their health plan enrollees spending approximately $1.4 billion. With healthcare expenses expected to increase in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s crucial that brokers help their clients find and implement affordable, high return programs aimed at stemming opioid misuse among their workers. There’s no time to wait.

Allison Brown, CHRS, is founder and board member at Health e(fx) and market consultant for Deterra System.