28 Jan Addicted: How employers are confronting the U.S. opioid crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 381,000 Americans, but the isolation and remote work environment caused by the rapidly spreading disease has exacerbated an already terrible opioid epidemic in the country.
In the 12 months prior to May 2020, the U.S. recorded 81,230 drug overdose deaths, an 18.2% increase over the previous 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC announced in December that overdose deaths had already accelerated in the months before the coronavirus came to the U.S., but sped up even more during the pandemic.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” says Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”
One way to do that is to better educate the public about the opioid crisis, the nature of addiction and how employees and their families can seek help during times of crisis. Congress acknowledged the problem in its latest pandemic relief bill, including $4.25 billion for mental health services to address the recent surge in substance abuse, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization founded to help people better understand the nature of addiction, created an educational platform for employers to teach their employees about addiction and the many resources available to them. The goal is to destigmatize addiction so that people who are being negatively affected by it can continue to work and get help for themselves and their families.
“The problem with addiction and COVID is that drugs and alcohol are used to self-medicate people, to temporarily make them feel better when they are not feeling great,” says Stephen D’Antonio, executive vice president of Shatterproof.
Add the fear and anxiety associated with the coronavirus, or the economic hardship associated with losing their job or having their hours cut, and “it’s almost a perfect storm,” he said.
Employers are the first to admit that employee opioid and alcohol addiction costs them a lot of money every year in the form of healthcare treatments and missed work. But, before COVID-19, employees didn’t have a lot of free time to do drugs or drink while at work. With remote work, they are even more isolated from society and nobody is around to see them drinking or taking drugs.
“Employers, as the decision makers of health plan design, have the unique ability to educate and build support systems for employees, particularly those at-risk,” said Cigna’s Dr. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health. “This not only improves the health of employees, it improves the culture and overall wellbeing at the organization.”
Cigna offers many programs to help its clients and customers overcome and prevent opioid addiction, including comprehensive pain management and narcotics therapy management programs, pharmacy coverage oversight, and designated centers of excellence for substance use.
Ilyse Schuman, senior vice president of health policy for the American Benefits Council, said that the opioid crisis and mental health issues in general go hand in hand, and there is a general lack of access to qualified mental health providers and behavioral specialists in the United States.
“Our employer plan sponsor members are very concerned and very focused on addressing the mental health aspects of the pandemic too,” Schuman says. “If any good can come from this horrible, horrible pandemic and the fact that so many people have lost their lives and so many people are suffering in silence is to highlight the importance of really addressing the opioid crisis nationwide and the mental health crisis,” she said.
Telehealth has allowed benefit providers to expand access to services like behavioral and mental health during the pandemic. The digital platform removes some of the barriers that health professionals face regarding where and how they can practice medicine.
“Employers are at the cutting edge of innovative strategies. In respect to behavioral health, they realize the importance of taking the stigma away from it. They are figuring out how to bring it out of the closet to communicate the importance of availability, of access to support services for them,” Schuman says.
In 2019, the State of Minnesota worked with the Minnesota Business Partnership to develop an opioid toolkit for employers who were looking for additional resources to help their employees. In Minnesota, drug overdose deaths increased 31% during the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019, according to Sam Robertson, community overdose prevention coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health. Most of those deaths were attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl that are used in both prescription and illicit drugs.
The goal of the toolkit is to show people that substance use disorder is a preventable and treatable illness and to present it in a user-friendly way so that employers of any size and type could address substance use in the workplace.
Addressing the opioid crisis in the workplace “is good for business,” said Dana Farley, drug overdose prevention unit supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Health.
The state worked with Shatterproof to develop the content of its toolkit.
Shatterproof’s Just Five program gives employers five steps they can take to be part of the opioid epidemic response. Each lesson is just five minutes long and uses video, animation and expert testimony to encourage people to get professional help, get educated, get support from people going through the same thing and take care of themselves.
The program has been adopted by major employers like General Electric, JPMorgan Chase and McKinsey.
“One of the big reasons people don’t seek help is they are worried about their employer finding out about their addiction,” D’Antonio says. This program helps get the message across that their employers stand behind them and want to get them the help they need.
SOURCE: Gladych, P. “Addicted: How employers are confronting the U.S. opioid crisis” (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/addicted-how-employers-are-confronting-the-u-s-opioid-crisis