Opioid Misuse Impacts Employees’ Lives, Costs Business Big Bucks

By Judith Monroe, MD, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation and Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the Itasca-based National Safety Council

Editor’s note: Dr. Judy Monroe is speaking about the opioid epidemic in an August 1 panel discussion at the Optum Forum in Washington, D.C. The following op-ed, developed by the CDC Foundation and the National Safety Council, outlines actions U.S. employers can take to protect their workers from the deadly opioid epidemic. 

Many do not realize it, but the opioid epidemic is gripping our nation in more than one way. While individuals and communities across the country are struggling with prescription opioid misuse, addiction and overdose, this health crisis has made its way into our workplaces. 

Seventy-five percent of those suffering from a substance use disorder are in the workforce, and employers are beginning to feel the effects. According to a recent nationwide survey released by the National Safety Council, 71 percent of employers said they are directly impacted by prescription drug misuse in their workplaces. Common issues include absenteeism, increased costs, decreased productivity, on-the-job injuries and fatalities and even employee arrests. 

What is most alarming, however, are the gaps between employer perceptions of impact and the actual human and business costs of substance use. The same study found that only 39 percent of employers view prescription drug use as a threat to safety, and only 24 percent feel it is a problem, despite
71 percent saying they have experienced an issue. 

The reality is that healthcare costs for employees who misuse prescription drugs are three times the costs for an average employee. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2013 alone, prescription opioid dependence, abuse and overdose cost the United States 
$78.5 billion. More than one-third of this amount—$29 billion—is due to increased healthcare and treatment costs. 

Employers have a real opportunity to not only assist their employees by helping to identify alternative approaches to manage pain, but also by providing them an opportunity to get treatment and work towards recovery. Both preventing the misuse of opioids and treating misuse and addiction when it occurs are important for supporting employee health. 

Research indicates that those struggling with a substance use disorder have better sustained recovery rates if their employers initiate and monitor their treatment than if treatment is initiated by friends or family. While this may seem like a difficult hurdle to overcome for both small and large businesses, there are real solutions that can help employers address the challenges and costs associated with opioid misuse and substance abuse disorders.

First, employers need to understand the situation and how it impacts not only employee safety and wellbeing, but also their bottom lines. For example, in Georgia, a construction company with 450 employees—an industry with double the national average of employees with substance abuse disorder—could save $166,409 annually because of lost time, turnover and re-training and healthcare costs, according to the Substance Use Cost Calculator developed by the National Safety Council, Shatterproof and NORC. 

Next, employers need to create a plan. According to the CDC Foundation’s Business Pulse focused on the epidemic, there are a number of actions employers can take, including educating employees and reviewing healthcare benefits packages for coverage options for pain treatment such as non-opioid therapies and substance use treatment programs. 

Indiana-based Cummins, Inc., for example, has taken a multi-pronged approach after experiencing drug activity in one of its plants in 2013. According to reports, actions included holding employee and manager training, opening a new health center with alternative pain treatment services, and hiring a pharmacy benefits manager. As a result, Cummins reports about a 4 percent reduction in opioids prescribed under its health plan between 2013 and 2015.

These types of employer-initiated treatment options can save employers up to $2,607 per worker annually. More importantly, they could save someone’s life. 

Preventing opioid misuse and abuse can and should start with employer-supported programs that improve health and wellbeing, treat pain with alternatives to opioids and ensure that employees are supported with ongoing care if they are prescribed opioids for pain. By embracing their role, employers can truly lead the way in saving lives and preventing injuries.   

Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.