The Heavy Toll of Opioids on America’s Labor Force

The opioid crisis is real, growing and heartbreaking. A third of Americans have been prescribed opioid painkillers, and opioids are so addictive that research suggests 1 in 5 who start a 10-day supply become longer-term users. As a leading writer of workers’ compensation and group disability insurance in America, we at The Hartford see the human impact of this tragedy – on victims, their families, colleagues and communities – all too often.

But the opioid crisis also has a telling impact in two areas the headlines seldom mention: the workplace and the workforce. Not only is it devastating American families and communities, it’s degrading our workforce, with the labor force participation rate down 4 percentage points since 2000 despite an ever-rising population. Work published by the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms that a key reason for this decline in labor is due to opioids.

Beyond the horrific human toll, the opioid epidemic has created an enormous financial burden and competitive strain on employers of all sizes – in the form of a diminished labor force, compromised productivity and higher health care costs. Indeed, in 2015, more than $1.5 billion in workers’ compensation pharmacy costs were directly tied to opioids.In our home state of Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy has taken bold steps by signing into law important measures to stem the flow of prescription opioids and thus reduce their devastating effects. Similarly, California, Tennessee, Florida and other states have passed or are seriously considering opioid-specific reform legislation. The U.S. Congress also has been considering bills designed to better understand and address the crisis, including proposals covering public health and prevention efforts, law enforcement and patient safety and improving Medicare and Medicaid responses.

The argument for action is simple – approximately 70 percent of injured workers treated through workers’ compensation reportedly are prescribed an opioid. And many individuals who aren’t working are still taking opioids.

Alarmingly, an online survey in 2016 showed around 50 percent of men who were out of the labor force took pain medication the previous day, and almost two-thirds of them took prescription pain medication – most likely one that was opioid-based. Their personal burdens may be dreadful, but so, too, are the impacts on employers. The costs businesses must bear in absenteeism, lower productivity, increased job turnover, retraining and health care are staggering.

While we remain in the depths of the opioid crisis, glimmers of light and hope are emerging. According to a recent report from health care and data science research firm IQVIA, opioid prescriptions dropped significantly in 2017, by more than 10 percent.

I am proud, too, of our efforts at The Hartford. Through a comprehensive opioid management strategy, we have reduced the use of opioids among our workers’ compensation claimants by nearly 40 percent since 2015. Through our robust drug review program, strict formulary and education, we are limiting the overprescribing of opioids to injured workers. By using data and analytics, we identify injured workers who appear to be at risk of addiction and offer alternative pain management therapies while providing support so they can safely return to work.

We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. We continue to build on our experience to identify ways we can fight this national crisis, from exploring partnerships with the nonprofit community to identifying new ways to support our communities, business customers and their employees.

We are also advocating in states across the country for a package of reforms that are proven to work, including the adoption of robust drug formularies, mandatory physician and provider education, opioid duration and dosage prescription restrictions and strengthening prescription drug monitoring programs. We continue to believe that efforts at all levels of government are important to helping us fight this crisis.

Employers large and small can make a meaningful difference as well by taking steps to remove the stigma of addiction, educating workers on the dangers of opioids through wellness programs and offering employee assistance programs to help ensure those suffering from addiction get the counseling and treatment they need.

Working together, all of us – employers, insurers, citizens, elected officials and policymakers – must build on this momentum. We can overcome the opioid crisis. But we must act quickly, before the burden grows even bigger.


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