In October 2017, the current administration declared the opioid epidemic a public health crisis — and with good reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a record 42,000 Americans died in 2016 from opioids. This is why addressing the opioid crisis must be a top priority not only for the government but also for employers, whose workers are impacted by the epidemic in myriad ways.
The Economic Cost of Prescription Drug Abuse
Simply put, the opioid crisis has been a disaster for the economy. The U.S. labor participation rate, which measures the percentage of the population working or looking for work, is near a 40-year low. Studies by a Princeton researcher identified opioid abuse as a major contributor to this drop, as thousands of Americans have left the workforce to battle addiction. According to CNN, there are nearly 6 million job openings in the country that employers are struggling to fill because of a shortage of workers partly caused by prescription drug abuse.
On top of contributing to an overall shortage of talent, this epidemic also means that employees bring lower levels of productivity, miss more days of work and a have higher rate of disability claims.
Bringing important attention to prescription drug abuse, the classification of the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis was a big step forward, as historically this term has been only used for contagious diseases and natural disasters. The recent Senate budget deal also increased federal spending by $6 billion to fight opioid addiction and provide mental health care.
Still, state governors say they need more federal support to tackle the problem. The National Governors Association published a list of recommendations for the federal government, including:
- Increased federal support for states
- Additional training requirements for opioid prescribers
- Flexibility for states to provide evidence-based treatment as part of Medicaid
- More coordination between state and federal departments
Ways Employers Can Help
Especially in the absence of action on the items listed above, employers can play an important role in mitigating prescription drug abuse. First, consider working with your health insurance provider to prevent the overuse of prescription drugs in the first place. You might ask your insurance provider to restrict the number of pills given on an initial prescription or limit the plan to only allow opioid prescriptions from a restricted network of pharmacies and providers.
Try including alternative pain treatments like physical therapy in your health plan offerings so that employees don’t see opioids as their only option for pain relief. A quality health insurance plan should also provide resources for employees suffering from prescription drug abuse to get help, for example an employee assistance program or mental health care coverage.
Finally, raise awareness of the issue by holding training on the dangers of over reliance on prescription drugs. Your employees should know the risks of addiction and understand how to work with their medical providers to take opioids responsibly.
With hope, these steps will help American employers and the government finally turn the tide on the opioid crisis. Finding a way out of this epidemic cannot come a moment too soon.
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