What can employers do to address the opioid crisis?

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Mallory Peak
Senior Account Director

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Last week I attended the annual HEALTH CARE FORUM from GREATER SPOKANE INCORPORATED and moderated by our own MICHELLE HEGE. The focus was near and dear to my heart — how Washington and our communities are addressing the opioid crisis. Specific to Health Care Forum, the important role that businesses have in helping their employees prevent and seek treatment for opioid use disorder.

Before recently joining the DH team, I oversaw behavioral health communications for the Washington State Health Care Authority. I worked with DH to design and launch the “Starts with One” campaign, a robust statewide campaign to change behaviors around opioid misuse and abuse. I also served on Governor Inslee’s Results Washington Opioid Communications Team, working across state agencies to communicate the latest prevention, intervention and treatment information.

We have all been, or likely will be, touched in some way by this crisis. We can also all be part of the solution.

What can we do?

In 2017, there were 70,237 opioid related deaths in Washington State. 95% were in the working age population . Opioids include prescription opioids, heroin or illegal synthetic opioids (like fentanyl). Prescription opioids from injury can often pave the path to misuse, abuse and illegal opioid use (to understand prescribing and overdose data in your community, visit the Washington State Department of Health’s Opioid Awareness Dashboard).

Employers can make a huge impact preventing opioid misuse and abuse in their workforce. Reflecting the need for collaboration as part of this effort, GSI’s Health Care Forum featured a varied representation of health providers and other community partners. So, what can we as a wider business community do?

1. Businesses can create a culture of health wellness with employees.

The panel strongly agreed that one of the most useful things employers can do to prevent opioid use and misuse is to create a culture of wellness within organizations. This means:

  • Raising awareness of opioid risk and small steps we can all take to prevent opioid misuse and abuse. Download materials from the Starts with One toolkit to post in your workplace, include in employee newsletters, or distribute to employees.
  • De-stigmatizing treatment by letting your employees know about the Washington Recovery Helpline at 1-866-789-1511. The Helpline helps callers navigate treatment options, including medication assisted treatment.
  • Being a voice for change by joining a local prevention coalition in your community. Support community health and wellness across the board.

Preventing opioid use disorder in the first place is a cost-effective way to address the opioid crisis. Employers are a vital, daily touchpoint for the population who can distribute resources and information to retain a healthy, productive workforce.

2. Businesses can hold health plans accountable.

Review your company’s health benefits to ensure access to preventative care and behavioral health services are covered. Ask questions like:

  • How does your plan address preventative care for pain management?
  • How does your health plan address behavioral health?
  • What benefits do you offer across the spectrum of care for substance used disorder treatment and recovery support?
  • What resources can you provide for employees as they have questions about where to seek treatment?

More specially to the health providers represented across the panel, there was much discussion of how various providers must work together to provide the best information, resources and treatment for patients across the continuum of care. Opioids still have an acute role to play in pain management and should not be villainized — nor should physicians who prescribe them — but recognizing the role that non-opioid pain management plays will also be critical in reducing the number of opioid medications circulating in our communities.

3. Businesses can elevate human resources policies and practice.

Business leaders and human resources professionals need to stay informed about their legal responsibility to employees struggling with substance use disorder. Employers also play an important role in social determinants of health by providing stable employment that supports long term recovery.

  • Review your company’s drug and alcohol policy to make sure it aligns with the ADA’s policy around substance use. Develop a response plan with your HR team to support individuals struggling with opioid misuse and abuse to get treatment.
  • Many talented, hardworking people have been removed from the workforce seeking treatment for substance used disorder. Consider partnering with a supported employment program to hire individuals who have successfully completed treatment and are on the journey to recovery.

We often talk about the opioid epidemic in terms of what healthcare professionals can do, what educators can do, what policy makers can do. As a business community, we have the power to make a meaningful contribution to this issue.

To learn more about the Starts with One campaign we developed with HCA, view a case study here. You can also visit the campaign website at https://www.getthefactsrx.com/.

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