Opioid abuse has reached startling proportions in the United States. Millions of Americans are addicted, and the death rate has tripled in the last 5 years. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, has said abuse of these drugs -- including prescription painkillers -- is “a growing epidemic that is gripping our country.” In fact, the CDC says non-medical use of these drugs is costing insurance companies up to $72.5 billion dollars a year.
It’s not just the insurance companies paying the price. The National Safety Council (NSC) did a survey with Indiana’s attorney general to see what weight opioids were putting on the workplace. They found that 80% of employers in Indiana had been affected by the misuse of these drugs. Nearly two-thirds of the employers surveyed say they think prescription drugs like Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet are causing them more trouble than illegal drugs. In an interview with CNBC, Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the NSC, said they would expect to see the same kind of results across the country.
Impairment can cause reduced productivity, on-the-job injuries or even criminal activities such as theft or embezzlement. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is stepping up efforts to help with the vast abuse problems by calling for an action plan to reassess its approach to these medications. In the meantime, it is up to employers to protect their employees and customers.
A solid drug testing policy is your best defense, but the NSC discovered that only 52% of the employers they spoke with even test for synthetic opioids. Many employers are hesitant to test for the prescription drugs because it can be hard to tell if they are being used legally or illegally. Even if they are being used legally, they can still cause danger in the workplace. To add yet another twist, employers are also concerned about violating the ADA if they take someone off the job for using a legal medication. Recently a federal court in Utah upheld the termination of a truck driver for the Lisbon Valley Mining Company because, while he was taking Oxycodone legally, he neglected to follow the company’s prescription drug policy that required the employee to tell Human Resources and have a company physician sign off on it. This means companies may have the some ability to control opioid use in some situations.
The testing itself is not very expensive. A standard 5 panel drug test will find morphine and heroin, but in order to find things like OxyContin and Oxycodone you need an expanded opiates panel, which only costs a few dollars more. You also want to make sure that your program includes a review by an MRO, or Medical Review Officer. They are the ones that will be able to determine if certain drugs are being used illegally.
As with everything else in business, it’s an issue of cost versus risk. With the research from the NSC, it seems the risk is definitely real.