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The Role of Employers in Combatting the Opioid Crisis

America is facing an epidemic with no immediate signs of slowing down.

According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emergency department visits due to suspected opioid overdoses continued to climb – about 30 percent – from July 2016 to September 2017.

While the opioid epidemic is greatly impacting healthcare providers, law enforcement, communities and families, it is also hurting businesses and the economy. The National Safety Council (NSC) found that workers with substance use disorders miss nearly 50 percent more work days than their peers – up to six weeks annually. That absenteeism ultimately leads to losses in productivity.  

A National Business Group on Health survey of 62 large employers found that 60 percent experienced at least one issue resulting from prescription opioid drug misuse or abuse in the workplace. Some of the most common issues were:

• Increased medical or pharmacy costs for chronic opioid users (40 percent),

• Increased absenteeism or missed work among chronic opioid users (40 percent), and

• Employees overdosing on prescription opioids (18 percent).

Many employers report that it has become difficult to find qualified workers who are not dependent on opioids. Another study by the American Action Forum reported that 919,400 people between the ages of 25 to 54 were absent from the workforce as a result of an opioid dependency. That number increased each year from 1999 to 2015. During that same time span, the decline in labor force participation cost the U.S. economy more than 12 billion work hours and more than $702 billion in real output (approximately $44 billion per year). 

The misuse and abuse of opioids is not something that impacts only those facing addiction. It can also affect loved ones who may find it difficult to be physically – or even mentally – present at work when dealing with a crisis at home.

The role of the employer in fighting the opioid crisis goes beyond required drug screenings for employees. Businesses have a direct interest in combatting the opioid crisis and can take actionable steps to help their employees in the wake of the country’s overwhelming and unsettling epidemic.

Provide pharmaceutical mail back envelopes

Some companies are turning to providing medication mail back envelopes so that employees can safely remove any unneeded medications from their homes and prevent opportunities for opioid abuse. Medications are placed within pre-paid, pre-addressed envelopes and can be dropped into any USPS mailbox.

These waterproof and tear-resistant mail back envelopes have a nondescript design that doesn’t identify the contents and includes a pre-addressed label to the collector’s registered address, paid postage, a unique identification number for tracking, and an instruction card. The envelopes are carefully tracked and properly disposed of at a licensed Drug Enforcement Administration facility. 

Direct employees to local drug collection kiosks

Another option for employers is to inform employees of drug collection kiosks available within the community. By directing employees to local resources, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration’s online listing of controlled substance public disposal locations, companies can ensure their employees have access to safe, convenient and free drug disposal close by, and discarding old medicine in these kiosks is as simple as putting a letter in a mailbox.

Re-think workers’ compensation insurance

Prescription costs per workers’ compensation claim continue to increase, along with the number of prescriptions per claim. While 75 percent of injured workers get prescribed opioids, they unfortunately don’t often receive opioid management services, such as urine drug screening, psychological and psychiatric evaluation, physical therapy or exercise.

With roughly 20 percent of all medical spending going toward prescription drugs, companies’ workers’ compensation insurance programs should focus on reducing the use of addictive prescription drugs for injured workers and also help them return more quickly to their jobs.

Leverage employee assistance programs (EAPs)

According to the NSC, EAPs can play an important role in drug-free-workplace programs and provide a low-barrier, confidential way for employees to get help. EAP services can be an impactful first step for employees to initiate support for nonmedical prescription drug problems. They can assist with counseling and referral services, conduct substance abuse evaluations, or connect employees to a skilled substance abuse professional.

EAPs also monitor employee’s participation in and compliance with treatment as well as return-to-work recommendations. An EAP representative can offer training for company leaders to help them identify and manage work-related issues relating to the misuse or abuse of prescription drugs, alcohol and other substances. EAP services are available for all sizes of businesses across all industries and can be customized based on the needs of the company.

While many organizations have EAPs, the national average for utilization of these programs is only about 3 percent. Effective EAPs should be broadly promoted and recommended by leadership. When promoting EAP services to employees, clearly define who they can talk to, how they can communicate with that person and where to go. It’s important to assure employees that EAP services are confidential and protected by HIPPA privacy regulations.

Educate employees

Providing education on the risk and avoidance of opioid overdose is a key step in helping employees understand the repercussions of abuse. Human resources professionals can consider addressing the following topics with workers:

• Risk factors for opioid overdose

• Strategies to prevent opioid overdose

• Signs of opioid overdose

• Steps in responding to an overdose

 By offering employees the opportunity to properly dispose of unused or expired prescriptions along with proper education and assistance, employers can take a big step toward combatting the tragic opioid epidemic. Instead of waiting for legislation and administrative agencies to set the precedent, it’s time for businesses to take action – and arm their employees with tools to fight this crisis, too.

About the author:  Maricha Ellis is vice president of marketing and sales operations for Stericycle Environmental Solutions, a leading provider of environmental and regulated waste management solutions. The company’s award-winning Seal&Send Medication MailBack Envelopes help employers of all sizes provide a simple and convenient way for employees to dispose of unused and expired medications.

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