A photo illustration that shows a woman sitting at a table looking with worry at pill bottles. The opioid crisis increasingly is harming businesses
Courtesy of Tommie Horton/U.S. Air Force

Beyond the human toll that the opioid crisis is exacting — more than 1,000 Kentuckians die from overdoses every year — addictions are harming an increasing number of businesses, and many are struggling to find the right responses.

Substance abuse and related incarceration are keeping about 135,000 able-bodied Kentuckians from working every day.

And on any given day, Kentucky’s employers have about 106,000 open jobs, according to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

The National Safety Council estimates that substance use disorders cost the average Kentucky durable goods manufacturer with 100 employees more than $32,000 annually, including $13,144 of lost employee time.

A portrait of Beth Davisson
Beth Davisson

Opioids have become the “human capital crisis of our time,” said Beth Davisson, executive director of the chamber’s Workforce Center.

“We really need all hands on deck,” she said.

State business leaders and Kentucky employers are implementing strategies to help businesses and their employees deal with addictions.

Business struggles

The opioid crisis is undermining businesses in multiple ways, including compromised workplace safety, lower productivity, higher turnover and lost institutional knowledge, said Rachael Cooper, senior program manager of Opioid Use Harm Prevention at the National Safety Council.

Employees who misuse opioids may compromise workplace safety in manufacturing, construction and other industries, but even if employees take opioids as prescribed, they can be impaired, she said, because the drugs slow a patient’s central nervous system and reaction time.

A portrait of Rachael Cooper
Rachael Cooper

“That’s really important to know,” Cooper said.

About 75% of American businesses said in a survey by the council this year that they’ve seen concrete effects of the opioid crisis, she said. That’s up 5 percentage points from 2017.

Employers are experiencing higher health care costs, excessive absenteeism and difficulty in hiring qualified workers, in part because a high share of them fails routine drug screenings, Cooper said. At the same time, the age of the average worker is rising, and as employees age, they are more likely to be prescribed a cocktail of drugs, which presents a higher risk of opioid impairment and addiction.

And while three-quarters of employers report a concrete impact from opioid addiction, some impacts are likely difficult to detect, Cooper said. When an employee’s loved one is struggling with addiction, the employee’s performance may suffer, without the employer knowing why.

And while the number of opioid-related deaths appears to be declining, the epidemic’s impact will continue to ripple through the economy, she said.

The costs to U.S. employers are enormous: In 2016, large U.S. employers spent $1.1 billion on opioid prescriptions, and another $2.6 billion for opioid use disorders, according to the council.

Businesses are struggling, Cooper and Davisson said, and a lot of them do not feel prepared to handle the challenges coming at them.

A graphic from the National Safety Council showing how businesses incur costs related to opioids.
Substance use disorder costs for a Kentucky durable goods manufacturer with 100 employees. | Courtesy of the National Safety Council

Thankfully, Cooper and Davisson said, the number of resources available to employers — and employees — is increasing.

“There are a lot of ways that people can make a difference,” Cooper said.

Even simple, inexpensive steps can mitigate the impact of the opioid epidemic — and save lives, she said.

Employers must engage and educate employees about the dangers of opioids, she said, and they can do so, for example, by inviting speakers for a lunch. Managers and supervisors must be trained to detect problems and be aware of resources to help employees, Cooper said, because the managers work closest with the employees.

Employers also have to avoid a one-size-fits all approach and encourage their human resources departments to create policies that treat people with compassion, reduce the stigma of addiction and offer help.

“If employees think they’re going to get fired, they’re not going to come forward,” Cooper said. 

Davisson said employers also can offer an amnesty day, on which employees can come forward to say they need help, and employers can connect them with recovery resources and agree to hire the workers back once they’ve completed a program.

Davisson said the approach makes fiscal sense for employees, because it improves employee loyalty and productivity. The chamber estimates that for every dollar a business spends on recovery services, they generate a return of $2. If employers add job and skills training, the return is $5.

Both the chamber and the council provide businesses with help in setting up and improving their policies.

A National Safety Council graphic showing how much businesses can save by helping employees overcome addiction.
Screenshot. | Courtesy of the National Safety Council

Humana

A portrait of Kate Marx
Kate Marx

Humana, one of the largest local employers, told Insider that it has made services available to both employees and customers to help identify and treat substance abuse.

“For example, webinars are available to increase awareness of the signs and symptoms of substance use disorders and (we) offer guidance on what employees can do if they, a family member, or a friend has a substance use disorder/problem,” a spokeswoman, Kate Marx, told Insider via email.

“Behavioral health counselors are embedded within Humana’s onsite health and well-being centers as part of integrated employee care,” she said. “Behavioral health services are provided for those enrolled in benefits, and targeted interventions are made with people struggling or when trauma is too difficult to address through available resilience resources.”

Marx said that the insurer’s employee assistance program “can assess and locate support including substance abuse treatment services, after-care services such as transitional houses or sober living programs, and support groups for those recovering from substance abuse issues or those affected by a loved one’s substance abuse.”

The company also helps people overcome addiction by, among other things, offering in-network treatment facilities, including nearly 30 Clean Slate Centers in eight states. The centers provide “medication-assisted treatment and related therapies.”

Changing the culture

A portrait of Van Ingram
Van Ingram

While law enforcement officers have seen many problems related to other drugs, including cocaine and meth, opioids have been an outlier because they have significantly increased the number of opioid deaths, said Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

Ingram is a former police officer and chief.

Legislation, including the creation of the controlled substance prescription monitoring system KASPER and limiting some pain pill prescriptions to a three-day supply, has helped reduce some of the opioid epidemic’s spread, he said.

Even a few years ago it wasn’t unusual for patients to come home with a big bottle of opioids of which they would use only a few and then store them in a cabinet, Ingram said. Typically someone else would gain access to those pills without a prescription. Most people who end up being addicted first use drugs they got from family or friends without permission.

To successfully combat the opioid crisis also will require a change in culture, much like changes the country has encouraged around smoking and drunk driving, Ingram said.

That process has begun, he said, with doctors prescribing fewer pills, and patients being more aware of the dangers.

“But we still have a long ways to go,” Ingram said.

Kentuckians who are struggling with a substance use disorder, or know somebody who is, can call 833-8KY-HELP. Callers can talk to a specialist from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays.

Part 2 of a series. Coming tomorrow: How Norton Healthcare is leading the fight to reduce opioid prescriptions.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.