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The opioid epidemic and the impact on American employers

September 20, 2017

By Kristen Cifolelli, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

In July 2017, a White House commission released a report on America’s opioid crisis with a recommendation that President Trump declare it a national emergency.  According to the report, approximately 142 Americans are dying every day from opioid use.   America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.
Here at home, a 2012 CDC study placed Michigan 10th in the nation for prescribing opioid pain relievers and 15th in the nation for drug overdose deaths. 67% of drug overdose deaths in Michigan are attributed to opioids and heroin use.  According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 1,257 Michiganders died as a result of opioid use in 2015 and between 2010 and 2015 Wayne, Macomb, Genesee, and Kent counties had the highest number of overdoses.
While employers struggle to find talent that has the necessary job skills, they are discovering the effects of the opioid epidemic are carrying over into the workplace.  In a recent report by Goldman Sachs, the use of opioids has become a key factor to why “prime age” workers are unable or unwilling to find work.  Many applicants simply can’t pass a drug test.  Crain’s Detroit Business found that opioid abuse cost businesses $16.3 billion in 2013 in disability claims and lowered productivity.  Medical costs for opioid abuses are almost twice that of non-abusers.
When it comes to strategies to dealing with opioid abuse in the workplace, the law firm Fisher Phillips, LLP provides the following guidance for employers:

  • Create an environment where employees are more likely to disclose opioid-related issues – In order to help employees that are dealing with drug addiction, provide an environment where they feel safe to confide their struggles or report concerns about a co-worker. Employers should consider providing ongoing education on the subject of opioid abuse and the ensuing hazards.  If an employer is aware of the issue, resources can be made available to help the employee from overdosing or causing a safety hazard in the workplace.  Proactively addressing the issue upfront can help avoid problems down the road.
  • Reconsider zero tolerance drug testing failure policies – Many employers have a zero tolerance drug testing policy, which means if the employee tests positive for drugs they are automatically terminated.  Opioid use often causes depression and loss of a job could further intensify the depression.  Other potential concerns include intentional or accidental overdose as a result of the unemployment.  

Employers may want to reconsider automatic termination for the first occurrence of a positive drug test.  Instead, implement a “last chance” agreement, whereby the employee will receive counseling and education to become clean in exchange for keeping their job (a second positive drug test will result in termination).

  • Consider enhanced monitoring of workers’ compensation claims – many workers’ compensation carriers often seek to minimize the expense of claims by seeking the least expensive treatment possible.  This often results in prescribing opioid medication for pain instead of pursuing more aggressive treatments which could include therapy, surgical interventions, etc.).  This can result in a higher risk of drug dependency.

A new study shows that the state of Michigan had the largest decrease in the amount of opioids prescribed per workers’ compensation claims between 2009-2015. According to the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), the 37% decrease was due, in large part, to the Workers’ Compensation Agency’s (WCA) amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Health Care Services rules and fee schedule. The amended rules began in 2014 and prevented reimbursements for opioid treatment beyond 90 days for non-cancer related chronic pain, unless detailed physician reporting requirements and other processes were met.

  • Revisit and enhance drug counseling programs – Employers should consider re-evaluating their drug counseling programs to determine if it provides adequate coverage and education for employees.  Supervisors should receive training to help recognize the signs of drug abuse and know how to refer an employee to their EAP for help.

While most employers have implemented wellness programs that address weight issues, smoking, and stress reduction, many aren’t prepared to deal with the impact of the opioid epidemic.  Employers should consider taking proactive steps to develop a strategy, and provide the resources to help combat and treat opioid addiction faced by their employees.

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