Role of the Employer in Battling Opioid Addiction

According to the American Benefits Council, on average, 115 people die each day from an opioid overdose either from prescription or illegal opioids.  Over the years, many businesses have stood by, not knowing their role in this epidemic. 

However, organizations of any size have an important role in promoting the health and safety of employees.  When employers have strong policies, education and health benefit programs, they create a safe and healthy working environment, which can help address the opiod crisis. 

Role of Insurance

Employers have unknowingly become enablers for the opioid crisis.  With more than 178 million American receiving health insurance coverage from an employer, employers can change their role in this crisis and help institute plans that are on the forefront of design and innovation. 

For starters, large self-insured organizations can check that all health providers are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.  Employers should also explore health care coverage that supports a variety of pain management treatment options such as cultural practices, massage, acupuncture, physical therapy, chiropractic care, behavioral therapy and occupational therapy.

Prescription medication in employer benefit package continues to be an important part of healthcare.  Over-prescribing opioids increases addiction risk.  Since the CDC has found the probability of addiction increases on day four, employers can work with their insurers and pharmacy benefit providers on designing a plan restricting initial fill days.  Special considerations need to be given, however, when patients have chronic pain requiring opioid therapy, diagnosed with cancer or receive palliative care.

Employers can also work with insurance carriers in implementing the best treatment plans for employees.  By using a tiered network, the plan can incentivize members to use the highest ranked providers with the best treatment outcomes.  Additionally, waiving co-pays for medication-assisted treatment which combines medications with counseling or behavioral therapy is another option to consider. 

Workers Compensation

Workers Compensation is another area for employers to tackle the effects of opioid addiction.  In 2016, 44% of all workers compensation claims involving prescriptions had at least one prescription for opioids based on data from 40 states.1    Plus, prescription painkillers increase workers compensation costs, increase the length of the disability, and increase the time lost.2   The types of injuries that see the highest opioid prescription include fractures and carpal tunnel syndrome.3    (Reference below)

Employers should work closely with workers compensation carriers on pain management policies and employee communication to mitigate the dangers that come with opioid prescriptions.  When the carrier’s claim department engages employees with regular check-ins and education, it’s a win-win for all parties. 

Making Help Accessible

Employees should be encouraged to use their health insurance and Employee Assistance Program.  A company’s insurance provider often includes vetted programs considered to be best in class with proven outcomes.  Another great place to consult professional resources is through the National Institute on Drug Abuse at and the American Society of Addiction Medicine at

The key is creating a culture which destigmatizes substance use disorders encourages employees to get help.  Employers can ease the burden already felt by these employees by providing a simple and clear way to quickly find a qualified professional to assist them. 

Leading from the Top

There is still stigma surrounding substance use disorders.  To help reduce this stigma, many corporate executives are openly sharing their personal struggle or a family member’s struggle with addiction.  The underlying message is that it can happen to anyone and it should be talked about.

Employers need to offer proper education to their leaders about opioid addiction and the effects it has on the organization as well as employees.  Resources should be available to all managers to support their employees or family members experiencing problems. 

With ongoing communication, employers can keep the conversation going to raise awareness to the issue.  Employers are now in a position to shift from enabling the epidemic to prevention and recovery.    

  1. 2017 Medical Data Report Opioid Utilization Supplement For the state of: New Mexico, National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI).   September 2017.
  2. White JA, Tao X, Tairefa M, Tower J, Bernacki E, ‑e Eect of Opioid Use on Workers’ Compensation Claim Cost in the State of Michigan (August 2012) Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine Vol. 54, Issue 8.
  3. Thumala V, Wang D, Liu T-C [2018].  WCRI Correlates of Opioids Dispensingpdf Cambridge, MA: Workers’ Compensation Research Institute, December, 2018, WC-18-48.

About the Author: Debi Douma-Herren

Debi is a Manager with Recovery Friendly Workplaces Inc.. She has twenty years of experience in Human Resources in the private and public sectors, including establishing policies, benefits plans, and Employee Assistance programs. In addition to Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees, she holds SPHR and SHRM-SCP certificates.
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