How Employers Can Help Reverse the Prescription Opioid Epidemic

Jan 11, 2024

More than 17% of the U.S. population had one or more opioid prescriptions filled in 2017, with an average of 3.4 opiate painkillers prescribed per patient.1 That same year, 1.7 million Americans reported a prescription opioid disorder, causing an epidemic that is costing the country $78.5 billion in lost productivity, healthcare costs and more. It’s not surprising this crisis has impacted the workforce with employees at every job level at risk for an opioid-related addiction.

Employers can play a role in reducing the impact this epidemic has in the workplace. When surveyed, 71% of employers stated they are feeling the effect of prescription drug misuse, including opioids.While 70% of employers want to help workers return after treatment, only 19% feel “extremely prepared” to deal with misuse.

Here are proactive strategies employers can take to assist with prevention, detection, treatment and return-to-work (RTW) efforts relating to opioid use disorders in the workplace:

  • Increase awareness and prevention efforts by providing employees with information on ways opioid medications could affect health, job performance and safety.
  • Find ways to educate managers on how to detect signs of misuse. Leverage employee assistance program (EAP) offerings and confidential resources employees can use without fear of consequence.
  • Partner with progressive insurance carriers skilled at navigating the complexities of the opioid-related disability and absence process to assist employees with quality treatment and recovery options.
  • Make sure your insurance partner has a behavioral health practice to collaborate with your Human Resources (HR) team, medical professionals and the employee on an effective RTW plan.

Behavioral Health: An Emerging Solution

Early clinical intervention can have a positive impact on an employee’s behavioral health treatment and recovery. Behavioral health clinicians who specialize in opioid disorders employ several tactics to ensure a fast, yet safe, RTW situation for employees. Tactics include:

  • Assessing claims data to identify triggers for early clinical engagement. Important triggers that lead to efforts to help claimants and employees include longer-term opioid painkiller prescriptions, an opioid addiction diagnosis or failure to return to work within the suggested disability duration. Clinicians and claims managers can intervene where employers can’t to review employee medical records and to work with medical professionals.They can, for example, suggest alternative pain treatments or reduce prescription dosages to avoid potential addiction.
  • Using professional interview protocols with employees, employers and healthcare providers sooner in the leave process. This information helps identify existing or potential risks for opioid abuse, along with safety concerns related to RTW. It also helps clinicians map out recovery options. By using analytical models, claims teams can also predict the likelihood of disability claims for employees who have family members dealing with an opioid disorder. For example, an interim claim to care for a loved one under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can morph into a disability claim related to stress for the employee themselves.
  • Developing a personalized RTW plan for the employee. This may entail talking to the employee and physician about restrictions, tapering and alternative treatments, discussing work accommodations with the employer, making referrals for support resources, and recommending vocational rehabilitation services. After returning to work, the EAP can monitor the employee’s progress by conducting job performance reviews, enforcing periodic drug tests and ensuring attendance at required therapy and recovery programs.

These and other best practices give employers the power to reduce the impact that prescribed opioid misuse has on their organization, decreasing lost productivity, disability claim costs, safety risks and more. Most importantly, it shows employees that employers are truly focused on the success of their employees, not only in the workplace but more holistically as well.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018 Annual Surveillance Report of Drug-Related Risks and Outcomes — United States. Surveillance Special Report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Published August 31, 2018.