Human Resources News & Insights

Opioid crisis forcing employers to take drastic health plan steps

If your company is worried about employees’ abuse of opioid prescriptions, you’re not alone.

The majority of large employers (80%) are “concerned” about employees’ abuse of prescription opioids, according to the National Business Group on Health’s (NBGH) Large Employers 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey. And 53% of employers also said they’re “very concerned” about this type of abuse.

30% of employers taking action

It’s no secret opioid usage is a major problem in the U.S. After all, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a “public health emergency” recently.

But employers may be surprised to find how many of their peers are taking steps to prevent the crisis from negatively impacting their workplaces.

Nearly a third (30%) of large businesses have altered their health plans to restrict the use of prescription opioids.

And 21% of companies have added programs to manage prescription opioid usage.

Many experts believe these steps are necessary given the severity of the problem. As Brian Marcotte, NBGH president and CEO puts it:

“The opioid crisis is a growing concern among large employers,, and with good reason. The misuse and abuse of opioids could negatively impact employee productivity, workplace costs, the availability of labor, absenteeism and disability costs, workers’ compensation claims, as well as overall medical expenses.”

Specifically, what types of changes have employers made to their health plans and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) to prevent abuse? The NBGH says the most common strategies among employers are:

  • limiting the quantity of pills on initial prescriptions for opioids
  • limiting coverage of opioids to a network of pharmacies and/or providers
  • expanding coverage of alternatives for pain management, such as physical therapy
  • providing training in the workplace to increase awareness and recognition of signs of opioid abuse, and
  • working with health plans to encourage physicians to communicate about the dangers of opioids and to consider alternatives for pain management.

3 key safeguards

In addition to altering health and PBM plans, now is probably a good time to update key workplace policies. The National Safety Council recommends the following:

Create a drug-free workplace program (DFWP). This states what workers must do if they are prescribed meds that may cause impairment.

Test for prescriptions. Working with an attorney, employers can test for drugs that are legally prescribed and commonly abused.

Spell out what happens when abuse occurs. This should include how the abuse is identified, employees’ options (leave, etc.) and how a return works.

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