While the toll of the prescription drug epidemic in society is well-documented, the impact on employers has not been studied closely.
To learn more about how prescription drugs affect the workplace, the Idaho Office on Drug Policy and Idaho Industrial Commission are holding a panel discussion Dec. 5.
A diverse panel that includes law enforcement, a physician, the state pharmacy association, and an employers’ group “will really help us understand the cost to the employer of having untreated drug use in the office,” said Nicole Fitzgerald, interim administrator of the Idaho Office on Drug Policy.
A survey by the National Safety Council found that 70 percent of businesses report that narcotic painkillers have affected their business. Medication addictions may not be as noticeable as some other substance abuse problems; for example, they cannot be sensed as easily as alcohol, which smells distinctive. They can be invisible until they’re fatal.
But opioids and other drugs hurt productivity, cause absenteeism, and eventually harm work performance to the point where people can lose their jobs, said Jean Lockhart, the CFO at the Boise Rescue Mission. Lockhart said it’s common to meet people who are unemployed because of substance abuse.
“It’s a complicated problem, because when you have a surgery or dental procedure, you genuinely need a pretty good painkiller,” Lockhart said. Yet, some painkillers cause recovering addicts to relapse.
Prescription drugs are taking a heavy toll in Idaho. The number of drug-induced deaths by synthetic opioids (other than methadone) rose nearly 70 percent from 2015 to 2016, the Department of Health and Welfare said in an opioid needs assessment released in October. Synthetic opioids include medications such as fentanyl.
Physicians have taken steps to limit prescription drug abuse. The average amount of opioids dispensed to injured workers declined from 2010 and 2013 over two years following the injury, according to the Workers Compensation Research Institute. Fitzgerald said police report that heroin is a bigger problem in Idaho than prescription drugs. Many prescription drug users turn to heroin because it is less expensive.
Idaho doesn’t maintain separate statistics regarding opioid use at work, according to the Department of Health and Welfare. In its 2016 report on drug-induced deaths, the department said drug overdoses and other drug-related deaths accounted for just 2 percent of all deaths in the state. But the report said the number of drug‐induced deaths increased nearly 30 percent from 2012 to 2016.
In its opioid needs assessment, the state Department of Health and Welfare said that Idaho counties need to do a better job of detailing drug use in death certificates. In some counties, many death certificates do not say what drug was involved in a drug death.
Idaho drug tester says positive tests for opioids have risen 18 percent this year
While the state of Idaho doesn’t track rates of drug abuse among workers, companies like the Boise-based Wienhoff Drug Testing do, because it’s their business. Wienhoff has seen positive tests for unauthorized opioid use rise 8 percent to 10 percent this year over last year, said CEO Colleen Wienhoff.
For all opioid use – including legal prescriptions – Wienhoff has seen an increase of 18.2 percent this year. Wienhoff carries out testing on job applicants, random testing required by employers, and testing requested by employers after an accident or when there’s a suspicion that drugs are being used. The company has about 2,800 clients in Idaho, and an office in Oregon.
Opioids are just a small part of the picture when it comes to drug testing. Positive readings for marijuana and methamphetamine are more common, Wienhoff noted.
“So many people are naïve that we have a problem,” said Wienhoff, a nurse who started her company in 1988. “When I tell people how people attempt to beat the drug test, to falsify their information, they are blown away. They just don’t believe people will go to those extremes.”
“The type of drug(s) involved with drug-induced deaths are underreported throughout the state,” the report said. “Consequently, the number of true opioid-involved overdose deaths is likely higher than what is observed (through Health and Welfare research).”
Fitzgerald emphasized that prescription drug abuse crosses all social and economic classes. Employers can help by making sure there are appropriate medication alternatives available in their company health benefits, such as enhanced physical therapy, and by helping injured workers return to their jobs in a capacity that allows them to work without further injury.
“It’s not to say opioids can’t be useful,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s just making sure employers have some knowledge and can be thinking of it as they’re planning their benefits.”
Employers can also help by offering assistance such as psychological counseling in company benefit plans, Lockhart said.
“When you have an employee who for whatever reason their performance is suffering, you should try to find out why and see if you can help them,” she said. “If you can help an employee get back on track, you keep your good employee and help that person and it’s good for the community as well.”
Watch IBR’s segment on KTVB Friday’s at 4 p.m. On Nov. 24, IBR Editor Anne Wallace Allen discussed this topic with KTVB’s Doug Petcash. Click here to watch the video.