The Opioid Epidemic: How Employers Can Offer Help and Hope

October 17, 2018

CBS News anchor Angela Kennecke last spoke to her daughter on Mother’s Day. Three days later, 21-year-old Emily died from fentanyl poisoning. Ironically, Kennecke had been working on a story about the opioid epidemic that very day.

After a four-month leave, Kennecke returned to work to share her story. “I have an obligation to talk about it,” she told CBS This Morning.My number one reason for talking about it is to erase the stigma that is surrounding addiction, especially the use of heroin, opioids.”

It’s this very stigma that often keeps people, especially employees, from seeking help. Fear of losing their job and shame silence those who need help the most, endangering their lives and costing billions due to health care costs, lost work productivity and even crime.

Employers can offer hope and healing to workers impacted by opioid misuse. The risk management strategies we discussed last time are a good start, but there’s still much to be done.

First and foremost, opioid addiction must be treated like the disease it is and not as a reflection of personal willpower.  Substance abuse disorder affects 21 million Americans, but only one in 10 receives any form of treatment. Often, that treatment is delivered without the use of evidence-based practice. “When it comes to substance abuse, there are no clear guidelines,” said Dr. William Lopez, Cigna senior medical director.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine concurs, noting the importance of ending the social stigma of addiction, and increasing access to treatment programs and medications that treat opioid use disorder. The ASAM also supports the expanded use of naloxone, a medication that can save lives by reversing the effects of an opioid-related overdose. “People with addiction deserve to be treated like any other patient with a medical disease,” the AMA Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse points out.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams recently released “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Spotlight on Opioids.” In this update, he encourages broader open discussion about addiction and recommends actions to prevent and treat opioid use disorder and promote recovery. “Addiction is a brain disease that touches families across Americaeven my own,” he said. “We need to work together to put an end to stigma.”

Employer-sponsored plans actively seek out disease-specific clinical care and education for “traditional diseases” such as diabetes and cancer. Similar care and education options can be offered to those affected by opioid use disorder. Strategies may include:

  • Tailoring communications to high-risk populations—including young people between 20 and 25, women, and those in severe pain or poor health—informing them of the risks of opioid addiction. Information can be found at Consumer Reports and the Mayo Clinic, for example.
  • Training managers to recognize substance abuse issues and how to consistently deal with them.
  • Encouraging employees to seek help and provide information on treatment options available, such as employee assistance programs (EAPs) and medical plan benefits that offer counseling, rehabilitation, and/or screening from a professional provider.
  • Considering the use of enhanced PBM services. These services can include stronger interventions and plan monitoring of physicians, pharmacies, and patients—including investigative units as well as addiction resources and support for patients and families.
  • Providing plan coverage for alternative pain management options and encourage employees to utilize these alternatives, the National Business Group on Health advises. These include lifestyle adjustments, behavioral therapy, exercise, acupuncture, and massage.

When assisting employees, it’s important to remember that nobody is immune to opioid use disorder. It can affect you and your loved ones as easily as it has impacted those you are seeking to help. According to the Mayo Clinic, taking opioid medications for more than a few days increases your risk of long-term use, which increases your risk of addiction. In fact, the likelihood of a person still taking opioids a year after starting a short course increases after only five days of taking these medications as prescribed.

It will take continued coordination and collaboration within our society to combat the opioid epidemic. When we remove the shame and blame often associated with addiction, we open a path for recovery and healing. Talk to your PBM or pharmaceutical consultant and see how you can help.


Read the previous articles in this series: