Employers must help address Kentucky’s opioid epidemic

Published 6:29 pm Monday, July 15, 2019


Guest columnist

Kentucky employers have a growing front-line awareness of the devastating impact the opioid epidemic is having on our state. They know that this epidemic is more than a public health issue. It is also a serious workforce issue that must be addressed — with employers playing a key role — if they are going to meet their challenges of finding and retaining workers.

Email newsletter signup

As Jonathan Copley, CEO of Aetna Better Health of Kentucky, puts it: “As business leaders, we cannot sit idle in the face of this epidemic. We must be an active part of the solution to recover our citizens and our workforce.”

Copley is chairing a task force of business and industry representatives who are leading a new initiative, the Opioid Response Program for Business. The Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center is leading this work in partnership with the state cabinets for Health and Family Services and Justice & Public Safety as well as the biopharmaceutical company Alkermes and Aetna Better Health of Kentucky.

The Response Program for Business will work directly with employers to help audit their policies and recommend best practices to maintain a drug-free workplace while supporting a recovery-friendly culture. It will focus on destigmatizing the addiction epidemic and supporting employers’ role in opioid prevention, treatment and recovery in the workplace.

The need is urgent as employers are feeling the impact firsthand. Economic research has found a strong link between rising opioid prescriptions and declining workforce participation rates, estimating that nearly half of men age 25 to 54 who are not in the workforce take pain medication daily and that there is a higher rate of absenteeism among opioid abusers who work.

This Response Program for Business is the first of its kind of the nation and represents a groundbreaking opportunity to tackle the scourge of addiction that is creating such grim realities for too many Kentuckians, their families and their communities.

The scope of the problem is the focus of a recent Kentucky Chamber of Commerce publication, “Opioid Abuse in Kentucky: The Business Community’s Perspective,” that reports Kentucky’s drug overdose rate was fourth highest among the states in 2017, when 1,565 Kentuckians died of an overdose, and the rate of opioid prescriptions that year was seventh highest in the nation.

The report noted: “To put these numbers in perspective, while 1,565 Kentuckians died from a drug overdose in 2017, 782 people died in traffic accidents, and 263 were murdered. Even more alarming: the problem continues to get worse. The number of Kentucky drug overdose deaths in 2017 represented an 11.5 percent increase over 2016.”

In addition to the devastating impact of opioid abuse on Kentuckians and the state’s efforts to build and sustain a quality workforce, the criminal justice system also experiences the negative effects — at a high personal and financial cost.

The number of offenders sent to state prison for drug possession more than doubled from 2012 to 2016, and 38 percent of all offenders were sentenced for drug offenses, according to the state CJPAC Justice Reinvestment Work Group. As the cost of incarceration is $18,406 annually per inmate, the approximately 4,500 additional inmates in prison for drug offenses in 2016 cost Kentucky taxpayers more than $82 million per year — and this doesn’t include those previously incarcerated or sent to prison since 2016.

Kentucky has taken a number of actions in recent years to combat the opioid epidemic, but the persistent need requires additional effort. The Chamber believes state policy should stress treatment over punishment for opioid abusers and is recommending:

• Reclassifying drug possession as a misdemeanor to reduce the number of offenders jailed for that offense.

• Increasing state support for substance abuse treatment.

• Continuing efforts to make naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose, widely available.

• Continuing use of mandatory prescription programs.

• Encouraging the creation of needle exchange programs.

• Creating local collaboratives with community and business leaders to develop solutions.

• Supporting efforts to hire people in recovery.

We encourage employers across the Commonwealth to become part of the Response Program for Business.

Beth Davisson is Executive Director of the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center. Read the report, “Opioid Abuse in Kentucky: The Business Community’s Perspective” at bit.ly/2Oc8eYr.