Opioid problem, cutting into U.S. life expectancy

Opioid Treatment Offers Hope to Injured Workers

Despite increased press coverage and a growing sense of national alarm, America's opioid addiction problem continues to expand. The number of people dying of overdoses each year has skyrocketed so high that it is impacting the calculations that determine the average American lifespan. And tragically, in the majority of cases, treatment for the condition isn't available.

However, new research indicates that treatment is, in most cases, effective in stopping the cycle of addiction while also revitalizing the social, occupational, and psychological functioning of the addict. For employers with injured workers who take prescription pain medications, combining those medications with treatment and counseling offers a safer, less expensive course to help employees recover from their injury and avoid becoming addicted to their pain pills.

Opioid Addiction by the Numbers

According to Blue Cross Blue Shield, 21 percent of its commercially insured members filled an opioid prescription in 2015, while the number of its members diagnosed with an opioid addiction grew 493 percent in just the six years between 2010 and 2016. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that, since 1999, more than 60 percent of all overdose deaths involved an opioid drug. The Agency further asserts that from the year 2000 through 2015, more than half a million people have died because of their opioid addiction and that 91 people die each day because of an opioid-related overdose.

Decreasing Life Expectancy Rates Caused by Opioids

Last week, the CDC reported that the large number of opioid-related deaths had reduced the average life expectancy by 2.5 months, or .21 years. The Agency used data collected from the National Vital Statistics System-Mortality file, which warehouses death data collected from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. When reviewing death data from the years 2000 through 2015, the national average lifespan grew by two years, from 76.8 to 78.8 years; however, that number would have been higher but for the immense number of opioid deaths. By comparison, alcohol-related overdose deaths were responsible for just a .02 year decrease in life expectancy. No other factor had a greater impact on the average national life expectancy than the number of opioid overdose deaths.

Opioid Addiction Impacts the Economy

An equally troubling statistic reveals that opioid addiction also explains why many "prime age" workers (those between 25 and 54 years) are unable or unwilling to find work. According to a 2017 study by Goldman Sachs (GS), the male American labor force has shrunk by ten percent since 1954, and in the opinion of a GC economist, "the opioid epidemic is [part] of the declining prime-age labor force participation, especially for men." According to a 2016 White House survey of unemployed workers, which used Federal Reserve Data in conjunction with survey data, of the 1.8 million workers "out" of work, almost half of the survey respondents - 881,000 - reported that they had taken an opioid drug the day before. (The status of "unemployed" was for reasons not related to retirement, student-status, disabilities, or caring for family members.)

Further, the opioid epidemic also stymies the chances of finding a job. The Federal Reserve Data also showed that, although the primary reason businesses were unable to hire workers was because of lack of skills, another significant reason was that those potential employees couldn't pass a drug test.

Opioid Treatment is a Rarely Invoked Option

Despite the fact that treatment interventions positively impact an addict's ability to stay sober for 18 months and reduce the number of overdose deaths, only one in ten people received any specialized treatment related to their addiction, according to a 2016 Surgeon General's report. That report posits that at least one reason for the lack of treatment for such a wide-spread concern is the current cultural belief that stigmatizes drug addiction as a moral failure punishable by criminal sanctions. Shifting the social perception to view illicit drug use as a healthcare concern and not a criminal concern may encourage both addicts and the people who care for them to be more proactive about pursuing treatment.

But Treatment Works

According to research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the supports offered by drug abuse treatment programs are effective in reducing drug use as well as helping recovering addicts to regain their social, psychological, and occupational function. The most effective substance treatment protocol includes a combination of both medicines (methadone and buprenorphine are considered "essential" by the World Health Organization) and behavioral interventions. And medication treatment is not simply exchanging one addictive for another; the medicines reduce the cravings and symptoms of withdrawal, which allows the brain to rebalance itself and heal from the toxic effects of the addiction.

Opioid Treatment: An Option for Employers

Consequently, more employers are considering adding addiction treatment options to the recovery protocol when their workers are injured on the job. Rather than risking the potential development of an addiction powered by prescribed pain medications, employers can prepare their employees to avoid that situation by receiving appropriate treatment before addiction sets in. The costs of supporting a drug addiction are always higher than the costs of treatment, especially when workers return to the job yet fail to resume their full capacity. Also, taking the opioid challenge into account when setting up the employee's recovery options keeps the worker's best interest at the center of that process.

There is no evidence that the opioid crisis is abating. Employers can elect to be part of the solution to the problem, however, by adding addiction treatment options to the recovery plan for their inured employees. They'll be saving money, but more importantly, they may also be saving the life of their valued worker.