Drugs Worker Health and Wellness

House hearing explores employers’ role in combating opioid crisis

Opioid hearing
Photo: House Education and the Workforce Committee Flickr

Employers can take an active role to help prevent opioid misuse and addiction in the workforce, a panel of experts said Feb. 15 during a joint hearing between two subcommittees of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

More than 42,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016, with 40 percent of the deaths involving prescription painkillers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states. In 2015, results of a national survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that 75 percent of adults ages 18 to 64 with substance misuse disorders are in the workforce.

During the hearing – convened by the Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee and the Workforce Protections Subcommittee – Corey Rhyan, a senior health care research analyst at the nonprofit organization Altarum Institute in Ann Arbor, MI, advocated several employer strategies to help combat the ongoing opioid crisis:

  • Offer prescription drug disposal sites.
  • Work with insurers and third-party administrators to ensure opioids are not unnecessarily prescribed.
  • Share outcomes of positive efforts with the broader employer community, when possible.
  • Support friends, family, caregivers and co-workers of people who may be suffering from addiction.

According to a recent study conducted by Altarum Institute, the annual cost of the opioid crisis – including lost productivity and health care costs to employers – rose to about $115 billion in 2017 from $29.1 billion in 2001.

“We have shown that employers are negatively impacted by the crisis, but can and will be at the forefront of implementing pivotal solutions to prevent and treat opioid addictions,” Rhyan said. “Public policies should seek to give employers the resources they need to be an active and engaged ally in the fight against addiction and allow them flexibility where needed to customize their responses. Including and empowering employers will go a long way toward accelerating the development and implementation of solutions to this nationwide epidemic.”

In response to a question from Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), University of South Carolina College of Social Work professor Christina Andrews pushed for Congress to help reduce the stigma around opioid use and provide resources to help people get treatment.

Lisa Allen, president and CEO of Ziegenfelder Co. in Wheeling, WV, said her company realizes the complex nature of the crisis and continues to search for ways to build on assisting employees dealing with addiction. Allen estimated that 20 percent to 25 percent of Ziegenfelder’s 350 employees have “some kind of a checkered past.”

“Just because some people made a bad decision or a bad choice doesn’t mean they still aren’t great people and have the opportunity to re-prove themselves,” Allen said.

Citing Altarum Institute’s recent work in Lorain County, OH, Rhyan said he has observed that employers in the area are struggling to find qualified candidates who can pass a drug test. As a result, organizations are more likely to consider hiring candidates who have recovered or are recovering from substance misuse disorders. Organizations also have begun to reconsider zero-tolerance abuse policies for existing employees while helping to provide treatment and recovery options.

The results of a recent National Safety Council survey show that 70 percent of all U.S. companies and 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have established Employee Assistance Programs to help workers with substance misuse and other issues.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), chair of the HELP Subcommittee, applauded current employer efforts but called for additional action.

“We must understand that the federal government must not act as a barrier or tie the hands of employers when it comes to addressing opioid abuse and the workplace,” Walberg said. “Rather, we should fortify employers’ efforts to help their employees and family members who are affected by this epidemic.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), ranking member of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, echoed that position in his closing statement.

“Strong sentiment and feelings of support are not enough,” Takano said. “America’s employers must step up to the plate and implement strong policies that support national efforts to address substance abuse.”

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