Employees and the Opioid Epidemic How You Can Help

Opioid abuse. You’ve probably read lots of stories about it recently, but have you seen the stats? They’re alarming, to say the least: There has been a fourfold increase in opioid prescriptions from 1999 to 2010 and a fourfold surge in deaths due to overdose.

Opioids are medications that relieve pain, such as hydrocodone (e.g. Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g. OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g. Kadian, Avinza), and codeine, as well as non-prescription drugs such as heroin. As a group they’re the third most commonly abused drugs after alcohol and marijuana, and they’re now responsible for killing more people than automobile accidents, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

They have also been blamed for a decrease in life expectancy among certain groups of middle-aged Americans.  Among self-insured employers, some estimates claim that 32% of opioid prescriptions are misused or abused, while Mercer data shows that opioid users 18 and older cost 5.5 times as much in total allowed medical and pharmacy costs compared to non-users.

The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence reports that 70% of people using illicit drugs, including non-medical use of opioids, are employed -- and then there are all the employees whose work may suffer as a result of worrying about a loved one with an addiction. Among 18-25 year olds, 12% use opioids non-medically, as do 5% of those 26 and older. The CDC also reports that there is 6% utilization among those aged 12-17. Employees across the country are struggling with this disease -- diagnosed and undiagnosed, directly and indirectly.

Something needs to be done -- and all of us, including employers, can play a role in addressing this epidemic. You can help support those with addiction by training managers and supervisors to identify problems and referring employees to sources of help such as your EAP or Behavioral Health carrier. In addition, it’s important to develop communication tools for employee awareness efforts. And if your organization has a drug-testing program, check to see if  the panel of substances tested for includes opioids.

Just as important is to prevent new cases. Review your medical, dental, and pharmacy benefit design to prevent the over-prescription of opioid medications. For example, the current recommendation is to limit prescriptions after procedures to seven days, which has been shown to decrease the development of new addictions. In addition, employers can ask their carriers or PBMs whether they flag members who are deemed high-risk for addiction, and if they follow up to ensure providers are consulting state Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs).

It’s also important to facilitate a successful return to work, by supporting the ongoing care needs of the employee as well as the families affected by addiction. And through careful monitoring of claims data, employers can look for red flags of addiction such as:

  • Members obtaining large quantities of opioids
  • Members prescribed narcotics by different doctors
  • Members prescribed narcotics for more than 30 days

Prescription drug abuse is a serious medical issue, and should be treated as such. By taking action now, you can do right by your employees who may be suffering from addiction, while also doing your part to address a sensitive and complex issue plaguing our society.

Register for Mercer US Health News to receive weekly e-mail updates.