Employers tackling costs of opioid abuse with testing, alternative treatments

Enginemaker Cummins instituted employee drug-abuse programs after discovering evidence of opioid abuse in 2012 by employees at an Indiana plant.

Responses to the country’s opioid addiction epidemic have included lawsuits against drugmakers as well as efforts and programs by federal, state and local governments. But with employers bearing a big chunk of the cost, some companies are addressing the issue head-on, with efforts to direct employees away from painkiller prescriptions. 

Citing data from a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Wall Street Journal reports that opioid addiction is costing the country $78.5 billion a year, including $16.3 billion in lost productivity and higher disability. Another $14 billion is picked up by private health insurers. Research from Castlight Health found that employer insurance covers nearly one in three opioid prescriptions, while opioid abuse costs health plans on average $19,450 a year, almost twice the medical expenses of nonabusers.

Those stats are not lost on enginemaker Cummins, which decided to institute programs after discovering evidence of opioid abuse in 2012 by employees at an Indiana plant. The 55,000-employee company offers training about opioid use and now requires those who apply for jobs to be tested for opioids, as well as those suspected of abuse. A positive test is not automatically a fireable offense but can result in a referral to a treatment program and away from jobs where safety might be an issue, WSJ reports.  

“We don’t want someone not to have access to something they could use to reduce their pain, but we don’t want to encourage addiction and abuse,” Dexter Shurney, the company’s chief medical director, tells the newspaper.

At its corporate headquarters, it opened a health center that offers alternative treatments for pain, like physical therapy, massages and acupuncture.

At the other end of the scale is Central Iowa Power Cooperative in Des Moines, which has 100 employees. Rex Butler, a safety and environmental manager at the company, tries to educate workers about how addictive and dangerous opioids are. He has special insight since his 33-year-old brother died of an overdose. He became addicted after being prescribed the painkillers for a work-related back injury. 

“As long as workplace injuries occur, a possibility exists for employees to take a medication that kills 45 people every day,” Butler says.

More companies are also stepping in. A recent survey found about 30% employers that responded intend to add restrictions or programs targeted at opioid use next year.

But while more companies are acting, fallout for drugmakers looks to continue as well. There are still lawsuits and investigations against some companies that are believed to have added to the problem through aggressive marketing.

Just last month, another former Insys Therapeutics sales manager was arrested on charges of paying kickbacks to doctors by using “sham” speaking programs designed to promote the company’s powerful pain drug fentanyl. Another former rep has already been convicted of the same thing. And a handful of companies, including Purdue, Allergan and Johnson & Johnson, have been sued by the city of Chicago, which is seeking to recover some of the costs of dealing with what has been termed an opioid epidemic, which it accuses the drugmakers of contributing to.