Fighting the Opioid Battle Now: 7 Tactics for Employers

President Trump recently announced his intention to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency, intensifying the debate over how best to attack the problem. Missing from discussion, however, is the role that employers can play in preventing opioid dependence and assisting employees and family members who may be touched by it. In an interview with BNA (Pension & Benefits Daily™, August 14th), Mercer’s leader for behavioral health Sandra Kuhn spoke about employers’ overarching responsibility to fight opioid abuse, which cuts across every income level. And in fact, most organizations that provide healthcare benefits are well-positioned to educate employees about the drug danger and limit their access to prescription pain-killers.

More than 33,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2015, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The first line of defense for employers is approving a limited supply of opioids and restricting coverage to a network of pharmacies or providers through their health plans. In 2016, 42% of employers implemented a prior authorization requirement for prescriptions that were for more than a specified number of days, according to research from Stich's International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. That number will likely grow in response to the crisis. In-network options for addiction treatment will also encourage employees to seek affordable help.

The statistics underscore the urgency. More than 33,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2015, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA adds that nearly two million more suffered from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioids. More than 50% of large employers surveyed by the National Business Group on Health say they are concerned about the inappropriate use or abuse of prescription opioids. The survey noted that employers are increasingly using workplace awareness campaigns and encouraging doctors to discuss the dangers of opioids with patients. But as the crisis grows, so must employers’ commitment to prevention and assistance.

Here's a checklist of 7 tactics to consider and questions to ask:

  1. Help establish and/ or enforce vendor programs
  2. Develop communication tools for awareness efforts and supervisor training
  3. Do your benefits include effective treatment options?
  4. Do you offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and is it being used effectively?
  5. Are resources easily available for families dealing with opioid abuse?
  6. Are you drug testing employees? If yes, does the panel include opioids?
  7. Have you established a return to work policy for employees who have lost time due to opioid dependence treatment?

Keep in mind, the demand creates opportunity for new options. As such, employers will want to monitor and consider additional steps – for example, encouraging members to try alternative pain management strategies such as physical therapy, and encouraging physicians to consider non-opioid drug options in prescribing for employees. An example of how the market is responding with innovative treatments is discussed by Margo Sanger-Katz toward the end of this interesting podcast from Kaiser Health News. She shares her impressions from Stat’s “How a doctor stirred national demand for the Bridge detox device — without solid evidence it works,” by Max Blau regarding a wearable device that uses electrical stimulation to ease the pain of opioid withdrawal. We will continue to monitor and share new ideas.

Beth Umland
by Beth Umland

Director of Research, Health, Mercer

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