Employers Urged to ‘Double Down’ to Stem Rising Opioid Use Rates

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Any headway made in recent efforts to stem the opioid crisis is being challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say the rate of overdoses has shot up nearly 18 percent since stay-at-home orders were implement in mid-March. It’s also created barriers for those in need of treatment for substance use disorder.

“For those battling addiction, quarantine and social distancing have resulted in disruptions in treatment and recovery services and limited access to mental health services and peer support. Additionally, interrupted routines, loss of work, housing instability and prolonged stress in the new normal are exacerbating the challenges,” said David Sampson, president and CEO of the Property Insurers Association of America. “And to make matters worse, opioid use affects respiratory and pulmonary health, which means those abusing opioids and other substances also are more susceptible to COVID-19.”

During a webinar on Erasing the Stigma, Ending the Opioid Crisis, speakers from PCIAA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others discussed the surge in substance use during the pandemic and ways public/private partnerships can help stem them.

Public/Private Need

“September is national recovery month,” said James Carroll, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “As we combat the COVID-19 health emergency it is important that we recommit ourselves to preventing drug use, enhancing access to treatment, and supporting and embracing those in recovery.”

Carroll talked of the need to share stories of recovery. The federal government has “provided billions to small businesses, hospitals and providers” so those in need can receive support. He said ultimately, public and private partnerships are needed.

“We must band together across industries and sectors to dispel the stigma of addiction and ensure that people with addiction are not labeled and prevented from rejoining the workforce or otherwise contributing to their families and communities,” Carroll said. “We have to be relentless to erase that stigma.”

The private sector clearly has a stake in advancing efforts to combat the issue, as it directly impacts the bottom line.

“I think it’s a workforce issue, it costs us money,” said Christopher J. Swift, chairman and CEO of The Hartford. “It’s estimated that between 2015 and 2018 we’ve lost about $600 billion to this crisis, including approximately $100 billion in lost productivity.”

Surveys of small business owners show more than half believe they are or will be impacted by opioid use. Whether it is the employee himself, or a family member, the issue affects productivity.

“Ultimately business leaders can make a difference and have been making a difference,” Swift said. “It’s time to double down. I would emphasize the need for education, being informed, and ultimately minimizing the stigma associated with broad-based addictions.”


One place employers can begin to address the issue is by taking a close look at employee benefit plans to see what support services are offered. Many fall short.

“There are a lot of stigmatized policies that reduce access to treatment,” said Courtney Hunter, VP of State Policy for Shatterproof, a non-profit that has collaborated with The Hartford on the issue of substance use. “Only 1 in 10 people who need treatment have received it and far fewer of those receive evidence-based treatment.”

Employee assistance programs can be helpful for people with substance use problems. However, in surveys of small business owners fewer than half have them. Those that don’t are advised to search for available resources, such as on-demand counseling services. However, it’s important to find appropriate resources.

Shatterproof offers an initiative described as an addiction treatment, locator, assessment and standards platform to help identify nearby services. Called Atlas, the program was launched in July.

“We partnered with providers and payers at the state level to assess what quality is and to connect folks who are in need of treatment, or family members, to the right type of treatment for them that is quality,” Hunter said. “We took out that level of guessing because what people do now is they google resources, ‘Rehab near me,’ or ‘treatment facilities near me,’ and you are going to be encountered with spa-like facilities that sound lovely, but might not be the level of treatment you need, they might not be evidence-based.”

Another program offers a screening tool to determine the appropriate level of care needed. It was created in conjunction with the American Society of Addiction Medicine and Open Beds.

“In 13 questions you can determine what level of care you or a loved one needs,” Hunter said. “I can’t underscore how important that it is getting to the right level of care early.”

Employee benefit packages can include various tools to help those with addiction issues. The Hartford recently added ‘Prescription Digital Therapeutics,’ medical interventions that leverage software as the primary source to prevent, manage or treat substance use disorder and opioid use disorder.

“We are also offering a mobile app to deal with people’s worries and anxieties in a real-time fashion,” Swift said. “We’ve expanded our telephonic medical concierge service through consumer medical that provides real time help support in lining up resources for employees to get the help they need.”

Such programs and resources can go a long way to helping stem the opioid issue, the speakers said. Public/private partnerships are imperative as well. Resources are available, but need more money and people sharing their stories to help erase the stigma.

“We’ve done this before, we’ve cut back usage,” Swift said. “But during COVID-19, unfortunately, the numbers are going the wrong way and I just think we’re going to have to double down.”

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