As they rescue more children from addicted parents, revive more overdose victims and investigate more deaths, social workers, medical personnel, law enforcement officers and judges have found new ways to work together and recruit new allies.
At a recent seminar on opioids and the workplace organized by the Hylant benefits and insurance consulting firm, human-relations directors at area companies were told that there are ways to both help and retain employees with substance-abuse problems.
“Last year, we had 127 people who died from overdose deaths,” Fort Wayne-Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan told the participants. “And here's where you come into it – 68 percent of those people were employed when they died, and the average age was 40.”
In 2017, “the total economic impact on the state of Indiana was $4 billion – $11 million dollars a day,” Indiana's drug czar, Jim McClelland, said. And the problem is also undercutting Indiana's much-vaunted economic-recovery efforts.
“We've got a lot of jobs out there,” McClelland said. “And every week I hear from employers who tell me they can't fill all their vacancies because they can't find enough applicants to pass their test.”
Jennifer Pferrer, executive director of the Wellness Council of Indiana, agreed, noting one employer found 75 percent of its job applicants had failed a drug screen. Realizing that they can't “hire their way out of the crisis,” such companies are taking a new look at the way they approach drug addiction within the workplace.
Employee drug screens are one method of gauging workforce problems; looking at medical insurance claims is another. “Go back and look at your data, your pharmacy-spend, so you can see how many opioid prescriptions are being used,” Pferrer advised.
And then, she said, craft a substance-abuse policy that makes sense for your company. “Is it that you come to work under the influence, and you're fired? Or is it more recovery-friendly?”
Each company's needs may differ, Pferrer said. A small construction company noticed a pattern of employees receiving pain-pill prescriptions. “They were all tied back to musculoskeletal claims,” Pferrer said. The company implemented new policies to prevent that type of injury, such as requiring employees at construction sites to stretch before work. “They will tell you that they went from a large number to just about no opioid (prescriptions) tied to musculoskeletal claims.”
Pferrer also told of a company that decided to get out the word, “if you need assistance, we're here to help.” It took awhile, but finally one employee came forward. When it got around that the company was willing to help employees get help and retain their jobs, others came forward, Pferrer said.
“When an employee says 'I need help,' they need it right now,” McClelland said. “Too often a person who said, 'I'm ready for treatment' has been told, come back in a week. Well, they may not be alive in a week.”
Carolyn Warner-Greer, medical director at the Bowen Center, suggested employers assess what their medical insurance offers to help employees struggling with addiction. “Look at your policy,” she said, and tell insurers “I want more chiropractics care because it's an alternative to pain medication. I want acupuncture, more comprehensive physical therapy.”
One question from a human-relations manager brought home that it's not just about money and getting the work done.
“We have denied about 50 people positions” because of failed drug tests, he said. “When I deliver that news to folks, I feel like we're just raising the drawbridge.”
Pferrer had an answer for him. “Employers who make themselves aware of resources for those with substance-abuse problems can share them with such applicants,” she suggested. “If you're willing just to say, this is why you're not getting the job, and here's some resources for you, that would be a huge step to help them.”
It is not easy to keep fighting an opponent that only seems to get stronger. But the opioid epidemic thrives on despair; information and hope are powerful antidotes. McClelland, who has been executive director for Indiana drug prevention, treatment and enforcement since January 2017, emphasizes the same message inside and outside the workplace: It's a disease, but help is available and recovery is possible. “Educate, educate, educate,” he said. “Educate your employees.”