Mid-Summer Summary and a Quick Look Forward

It's mid-summer, and many of our readers are off on well-deserved vacations. For those who are still in the office (and are as fascinated as we are by all things ‘workers’ comp'), we are taking this opportunity to offer some updates to one of the major subjects we've been following and to provide a heads up about what we'll be highlighting later this year.


Updates on Opioids

For more than two years, we've been profiling the challenges posed to the nation's workers and employers by opioids. We've tried to explain:


We've looked into what employers can to do (and their struggle with those activities) to reduce the likelihood that their injured workers will suffer the additional pain of a subsequent opioid addiction. And we've reported how some of America's medical professionals have contributed to (and profited dramatically by) the problem by prescribing so many of the drugs in inappropriate quantities and dosages.


Clearly, opioids as pain relief for workplace injuries have wreaked havoc across the country for at least two decades, and America's employers and employees have borne the economic and emotional brunt of that disaster.


Seeing a Turnaround?

However, increased attention to the issue has also increased responses to it, and all parties involved - employers, employees, insurers, healthcare providers, and government agencies - are now working in conjunction with each other to reduce the problem.


Consequently, we're now happy to report three good news stories about how those added attentions and intentions have had a positive impact on the opioid concern:


1) The Dollar Amount of Spending on Opioids is Falling

Recently released data reveals that in 2018, all 27 respondents to the 16th annual "Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Comp" reduced their spending on opioids for injured workers by an aggregate of 23.2 percent in 2018. The drop signals the third year in a row that opioid spending was down, by 16% in 2017 and 13% in 2016.


Those reductions are the result of several changes in how medications are managed in the workers’ comp system. Insurers are now more careful about the number and dosage of opioids that they're will to cover, and ethical healthcare providers are reducing the numbers of opioid prescriptions that they write. And injured persons are also assuming more responsibility for their healthcare, by becoming more aware of the dosage and duration of prescriptions and moving off the drugs earlier in their recovery period.


In many cases, the shift in opioid usage reflects the growing reality that workers who remain on the drugs beyond medically accepted terms take longer to recover, are more likely to not return to work, and more likely to not regain their previous level of function even after they've recovered from the injury itself.


2) Adding Acupuncture to the List?

On a related note, in mid-July, the CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) for the first time suggested a willingness toauthorize the use of acupuncture treatments for their Medicare patients who suffer from chronic low back pain (cLBP). It's not available for everyone just yet, however; the agency issued a 'proposed' decision, indicating that they'd make a final determination on the question based on the results received by study participants who are enrolled patients in CMS-approved research or clinical trials sponsored by the NIH (National Institutes of Health).


Earlier in the year, CMS launched a  National Coverage Analysis (NCA) of scientific evidence that supports or negates the use of acupuncture as a pain-relieving alternative to medical interventions such as opioids. While there's no posted information as to why cLBP is the current focus, again, statistics may reveal why the CMS chose that particular ailment. A 2016 National Health Survey showed that at least 50 million American adults suffered from some form of cLBP and that 19.6 million of those experienced "high impact chronic pain." Both levels of pain are associated with increased anxiety, depression, and, in many cases, opioid dependence. Using the non-medical intervention of acupuncture instead of opioids would be a game-changer for many people if it curtailed their pain and improved their quality of life without the need for opioids.


The NCA is also part of a Strategic Plan developed by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) to reduce the impact of opioids on Americans. The strategy includes four approaches to improved pain management that might assist with the alleviation of pain but not exacerbate the health situation with an unnecessary opioid addiction. The approaches include exploring for more non-opioid medical interventions; assessing the efficacy of non-pharmacological pain treatments such as acupuncture and biofeedback; finding adjunctive supports for cases where opioids remain the best pain controlling mechanism and developing strategies to improve opioid management practices so that opioid use disorders don't develop.


3) The National Safety Council (NSC) Agrees with CMS

In a show of national unity, the NSC agreed publicly with the CMS and asserted its support of the decision to consider alternative pain treatment methods like acupuncture instead of opioids. The NSC put the opioid crisis in context by noting that the odds of dying prematurely because of a fatal opioid overdose have surpassed the odds of being killed in a car accident for the first time ever. The agency went on to encourage all employers and their benefits providers to consider accepting alternative pain treatments as a way to not just reduce the threat of opioid dependency but to avoid it altogether.


A Brighter Future

Both the reduction in opioid spending and the possibility of acupuncture coverage for controlling pain are significant strides toward a definitive solution to the opioid crisis. We will continue to monitor how the country is managing this scourge and keep our readers informed about how they can be part of that solution, too.



So, What IS an MSA?

CompEx MSA also intends to explore its roots and will be providing an overview of the need for and development of Medicare Set-Aside accounts. Protections for worker safety and healthcare management have evolved over a long period that also saw the institution of mandatory work hours, minimum wages, and safe working condition standards. Through it all, employers have had to walk a fine line between profitability and maintaining attention to emerging government and industry regulations. The MSA is one tool they can use to make that process easier.


At CompEx MSA, we believe we can assist our clients better if we help them to better understand how the MSA process works and how it works within America's industries and communities. We will be launching that series next month.

Are Employers Lagging on Their Opioid Response?

Despite the strong connection between workplace injuries and opioid addiction, a majority of the Nation's employers do not feel they are fully capable of dealing with the concern, says the National Safety Council (NSC). Data reveals that many employers remain hesitant to take the steps necessary to prevent or control the risks posed by a potential opioid problem in their workforce and, as a consequence, injured workers continue to suffer a higher than normal incidence rate of opioid addiction. However, by focusing their efforts on two primary objectives – drug use policies and health care oversight - corporate leadership can reduce both the likelihood of injury and the risk of potential opioid addiction if an on-the-job injury actually occurs.

The Status of Opioid Management in the Workplace

According to the NSC, three in four employers (75%) report work-based opioid challenges are negatively impacting their business, with more than a third (38%) experiencing poor performance or absenteeism, and almost a third (31%) suffering through an overdose or an on-the-job injury. In fact, workplace overdose deaths (by drugs or alcohol) have risen 25% in each of the past five years, another indicator that organizations are struggling to contribute all that they can to reduce (or at least stem) the tide of workplace-situated, addiction disasters.

A closer look at the NSC survey adds depth to the conclusion that employers are perplexed by the problem:

Despite years of data and information relating to the opioid crisis and its impact on America's workforce, it appears that the country's employers - the front line in many cases for injury and opioid addiction prevention - have not yet embraced the concern as their own or one they should be controlling.

Not New; Not Going Away

Ignoring the issue is not an appropriate response, however. At CompEx MSA, we've dedicated several articles over the past two years to the opioid concern, paying specific attention to its impact on the workers’ compensation sector.

Despite these efforts, the opioid challenge continues to take lives prematurely, to such an extent that it has single-handedly reduced the country's average life expectancy by 2.5 months (so far).

The Disconnect Needs Attention

These facts and figures about the prevalence and toxicity of the opioid concern across America's industrial complex should raise every employer's concern about their possibly less-than-comprehensive response to the issue. The best response would incorporate each of the three elements of the current concern to lay a sustainable and effective foundation for a comprehensive solution that:

While maintaining the quality of staff and value of benefits is specific to each business, all businesses can benefit from addressing the other two legs of the triad, preventing injuries and properly caring for those that occur. In reality, attention to the latter two (prevention and care) also assists in the retention of the first (a high-quality staff).

Preventative Actions

Maintaining a safe workplace is perhaps the best route to an uninjured workforce, which is also key to keeping corporate costs in line. Most employers are careful to maintain the workplace safety guidelines established for their industry by the government; keeping those current is a critical component of managing a healthy workforce.

One element that is often missing from those 'workplace safety' standards, however, is a fully informed and enforced drug-free workplace policy. The NSC survey indicates that, although 86% of companies have such policies on their books, only 60% have procedures specifically requiring workers to report to their bosses their use of prescription opioids. Half of the survey respondents (49%) were not confident that their HR policies had sufficiently covered the issue of opioid misuse and use in the workplace. Further, even if the policies themselves were completely comprehensive about all opioid-related concerns, almost four in five (79%) employers did not believe that their workers would be able to identify the warning signs of a growing opioid dependency accurately.

Clearly, there are many policy and educational options available to employers today to improve how employers manage the use of drugs in the workplace that can escalate their risk of developing an opioid crisis within their staff. Accordingly, the NSC recommends that every organization review their existing documentation to ensure that it includes:

Remedial Actions

There are also actions employers can take after discovering an addiction in a worker, too, that can reduce overall costs and get the employee back on the job as quickly as possible.

Every day, over one hundred people die prematurely because of an opioid addiction or overdose. A significant percentage of those people began their journey to addiction because of a job-related injury. Employers, therefore, are in a singularly unique position to address the opioid crisis through better management of their organization and workforce. Ironically, by changing their corporate goals to prioritize safety and drug-use management, they will also achieve their ultimate goal: attracting and retaining a highly qualified – and drug-free, uninjured - staff. For thousands of workers across the country, it's becoming increasingly imperative that more employers adopt this reprioritization sooner rather than later.

The Opioid Crisis: What Employers Can Do

Recently released Opioid Epidemic statistics from 2017 reveal that the country continues to convulse in the throes of this public health crisis. New laws aimed at addressing the issue are coming out of both state and federal sources, and even the tech industry is focusing more attention on using digital devices to prevent or reduce the need for opioid pain medications.


The most important participants in the fight against the epidemic, however, may well be the nation's employers, whose workers are most often the recipients of the drugs. By understanding how on-the-job injuries have driven the rise in opioid prescriptions, many employers can make subtle but significant changes in how they manage their worksites and injury responses so that their injured workers can recover in spite of or without the use of the addicting pain medications.


No End in Sight ...

Despite the recent legal and statutory developments offering enhanced guidance and support for opioid addiction sufferers, the number of victims continues to rise. In 2017, more than 72,000 Americans lost their lives to their opioid addiction, bringing the total estimate of premature deaths attributed to opioids to over 670,000 since 1999. (Compare that to the total 58,220 soldiers lost during the almost 20-year war in Viet Nam.)


Every day adds another 150 people to the opioid death total.


... But Multiple Avenues of Attack

Both governments and industries are focused on providing solutions:

While it is almost impossible to identify with certainty the percentage of opioid-affected injured workers that make up the whole of the opioid-affected population, at least one group puts that number at 60 percent. The International Risk Management Institute (IRMI) estimates that employers spent more than $25 billion on opioid prescriptions in 2007 and extrapolates that sum out to the equivalent of over $50 billion in 2016. If that total was reduced by even a small percentage - meaning that if the number of workplace injuries went down and/or the number of opioid prescriptions for workplace injuries went down - then the number of opioid addictions should also fall correspondingly.


Ergo, the IRMI suggests that America's employers, as a group, could do more to reduce the number of both injured and addicted workers, a premise which begs the question: How do they do that?


What Employers Can Do to Prevent Opioid Use and Abuse

Considering the strong connection between a boss and an employee, there are several opportunities within that relationship where the employer can avoid the risk of an employee's potential future opioid addiction:


1. Prevent injuries in the first place

Even with strong workplace safety rules in place, many employers fail to maintain those high standards throughout their worksite or shop. Injuries caused by over-exertion, falls, and inadvertent contact with machinery are often completely avoidable, requiring only improved oversight and attention to safety details. Engaging workers in the safety-related conversation also goes a long way to raising awareness about dangers and preventative actions.


2. After an injury has occurred, be alert to corresponding opioid prescriptions

Not every workplace injury requires an opioid prescription and not every worker should get one, regardless of the extent of their injury. The Traveler's Companies devised an "Early Severity Predictor" algorithm to measure the likelihood of an injured person developing chronic pain, one of the main drivers of opioid addiction. According to Traveler's, the algorithm identifies the types of injuries that might predispose patients to develop chronic pain, such as lower-back pain (#1), knee and shoulder injuries. It also tracks physicians who are more likely to prescribe opioids.


By identifying these 'sensitive' workers early in their treatment phase and before extensive medical interventions are carried out, physicians can prescribe non-opioid pain relief and avoid the risk of opioid addiction altogether.


3. Monitor pain treatment protocols

Despite the best of intentions, injured workers frequently require pain medications and, in many cases, the best medication for the purpose is an opioid. In these cases, employers can use their on-staff or insurer-provided Case Managers to monitor the patient's opioid use and deflect them if they indicate a growing addiction. These health professionals are trained to evaluate the impact of opioid use on recovery activities and to identify alternatives that will both address the pain concern while better facilitating the recovery effort.


Research reveals that investments in Nurse Case Managers in workers’ compensation cases resulted in reductions in worker treatment costs.


4. Follow all recommended protocols

There are many other recommendations for employers who are involved in the medical cases of their injured employees, all of which are aimed at reducing the opportunity for injury, maintaining vigilance over treatment activities and actively seeking alternatives to opioids when appropriate. Perhaps the most critical recommendation: make sure that treating physicians stick to the Opioid Prescribing Guidelines as issued by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine:


America's battle against opioid addiction is ongoing and requires the attention and effort of every group that is, or could possibly be, affected by it. America's employers are apparently on the front lines of the battle field and, by accepting that challenge and making incremental efforts to reduce its impact in their offices and worksites, they can play a big part in how that battle will eventually be won.

Governments and Opioids

Across the country, governments of all types are looking at how the opioid crisis is affecting their regions and communities. Both the federal Administration and Congress have issued new rules at the national level that reflect their cognizance of the concern and its causes. States, too, are addressing how their systems manage the crisis, including their workers’ compensation systems. The rising tide of new laws and intervention opportunities suggest that optimism is an appropriate response to how the nation is dealing with this epidemic. In Washington, and despite the polarizing election cycle, progress is being made:


 The FDA

Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy

On September 18, 2018, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Opioid Analgesic Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) as a control measure to curb the abuse, addiction, overdose, and premature death rates caused by prescription opioid pain relievers. Pursuant to the REMS, all healthcare providers (HCP's), including nurses and pharmacists, will be trained on the safe use of opioids to treat both acute and chronic pain to ensure they can select the appropriate product for the patient and provide appropriate oversight during its use. Drug companies that have approved opioid analgesics must offer accredited continuing education on the subject based on the agency's Education Blueprint for Healthcare Providers Involved in the Treatment and Monitoring of Patients with Pain.

Devices to Prevent and Treat Opioid Use Disorder (OUD)

The FDA is also taking a proactive position by issuing a challenge to the healthcare community to develop devices and tools to fight the opioid problem. In June 2018, the agency began accepting applications for the development of medical devices that can prevent or treat the addiction to opioids. "Devices" can be diagnostic tools or even digital health technologies (mobile apps or other soft- or hardware). When issuing the challenge, the FDA acknowledged that opioid addiction can arise as an unintended consequence to appropriate medical care and that the medical community is, therefore, an appropriate resource from which to seek answers to the problem. The challenge period ended on September 30, and the agency will announce its selections in November.


Help for MOMs

Pregnant women and new moms aren't immune to the opioid threat, so CMS has introduced a Maternal Opioid Misuse model (MOM) to improve their care and treatment options. Moving forward, maternally-minded Medicaid beneficiaries will receive coordinated care across service lines, including prenatal, neonatal, and maternal care plus opioid abuse and addiction services. Aimed at state Medicaid agencies, especially those in rural areas, the program plans to ensure front-line providers have the tools they need to address the needs of this very vulnerable population.

From Congress

Not to be outdone, the House managed to pass approximately 60 opioid-related bills this past summer, some of which also survived their trip through the Senate and were passed by the full Congress on October 4th. Most notably:

From the States

Many of the individual states are also addressing the concern as it manifests within their borders, and many of those bills address opioids in the workers’ compensation sector. According to a report issued by the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), in the first six months of 2018, more than 800 state and federal bills were introduced, and 76 of those had become law by the end of June. Additionally, there were 197 workers’ compensation-specific regulations promulgated, and 83 of those were adopted. Medical fee schedules and treatment guidelines including those applicable to opioids topped the list of subjects addressed in the new rules.

Almost every state worked on issues involving prescription drugs, and the topics ranged across the concern from drug formularies and compound drugs, to prescription drug fees and costs to drug rehabilitation programs and repackaged drugs.

·     States that Passed Laws

Twenty states looked at the opioid concern specifically through the workers’ compensation lens, and four passed laws affecting that industry in those jurisdictions.

·     States Still Working on it ....

Many states are still in the process of refining their responses to opioid addiction.

In June, Ohio's governor John Kasich issued new chronic pain prescribing rules that introduce "safety checkpoints" at periodic stages in the recovery phase of opioid-using patients, including injured worker patients.

Looking Beyond Opioids

In addition to getting their in-border opioid problems under control, many states are also looking for alternatives to opioids to avoid the problem altogether in the future. For some states, the most favorable non-opioid option for treating pain is marijuana.

Progress is Being Made, Not a Moment Too Soon ...

Although the opioid epidemic continues to rage in all corners of the country, the steps being taken now by its governing bodies represent their acknowledgment that it won't abate without interventions, and that not just any intervention will suffice to reduce its crisis. As individual states adopt tighter controls over opioid access and widen their perspectives about possible opioid alternatives, the chances for the country to ultimately overcome the epidemic look brighter every day.

Opioids and America’s Workers’ Compensation System

As more entities study the impact of America's opioid crisis, reports are emerging that reveal a tragic tale unfolding for not just the addicts, but also the communities in which they live. The cost of the epidemic is born across several segments of society, and, because those segments also impact non-opioid affected people, essentially, everyone pays for the damage that is being caused by this insidious affliction. Businesses, in particular, are paying more for the care of injured workers who are prescribed, then become addicted to opioids, and they are paying for longer recovery periods, too.


In this second post of a four-part series on the opioid issue, CompEx MSA hopes to share the details about the size of the challenge it poses, especially in the workers’ compensation industry. Future posts will offer some hopeful notes about how its ugly tide may be turning. In addition, research has suggested some possible responses employers might adopt as they contemplate how the crisis, now or in the future, might negatively impact their enterprise and how they might avoid the consequential costs.


Workers’ Comp, On-the-job Injuries and Opioid Addiction

Injuries at work are not news. According to the National Safety Council, somewhere in America, a worker is injured on the jobevery seven seconds. That statistic extrapolates out to 510 injuries per hour; 12,300 a day; 86,500 per week and over 4,500,000 injuries per year. For employers, the lost time due to on-the-job injuries totals over 100,000,000 production days annually. Many, if not most, of those injuries will require some form of pain-controlling medication, and for those, since the mid-1990's, opioids have been the pain-reliever of choice by countless physicians. Employers are also responsible for covering the cost of these medications, too.


Further, not every injury is comparable to all injuries and not every injury requires the level of pain relief provided by an opioid medication. Those workers in the most dangerous occupations often suffer more significant injuries and require higher levels of pain relief for longer periods than workers who don't work in those riskier jobs. These three common types of injuries can occur at almost any worksite, while the more serious injuries occur more frequently in those occupations that expose workers to bigger risks and more significant injuries.


Typical Types of Workplace Injuries:

The injuries suffered in these types of worksite incidents are rarely life-threatening but may require pain medication during the acute and recovery phases.


Riskiest Occupations

Certain types of work create more significant risks of worse injuries simply by their very nature:

Service workers

Police officersand firefightersobviously risk personal injury simply by doing their jobs every day. For police people, the most common work-related injuries are soft-tissue sprains generated by wrestling with a non-compliant offender. For firefighters, more than half (57%) of their workplace injuries - which are also sprains and strains - occur at non-fireground sites. In 2016, more than 62,000 American firefighters reported on-the-job injuries (24,000+ were at the site of an active fire).

Construction Workers

In 2016, there were more than 77,000 construction-related injuries, and more than 11,000 of those were back injuries. Hand injuries accounted for another 1,000+ injuries. Further, almost all construction workers will report at least one job-related injury in their career, making construction the industry with the most number of workplace injuries that require medical attention and (potentially) pain relief medication.  (Note, too, that 5,190 construction workers lost their liveson the job in 2016, which represents more than 20% of all work-related fatalities that year. However, the construction industry employs only 4% of the entire U.S. workforce.)


America's Top Ten Most Dangerous Jobs

Several industries are responsible for most of America's on-the-job injuries, and most, if not all non-fatal injuries usually require some level of pain management during both the acute and recovery phases:

From tenth to first, these are America's most dangerous jobs:

  1. Grounds maintenance workers;
  2. Supervisors of construction workers;
  3. Agricultural workers, including farmers and ranchers;
  4. Truck drivers and other transport workers;
  5. Structural iron and steel workers;
  6. Waste material collections workers;
  7. Roofers;
  8. Aircraft pilots and flight engineers;
  9. The fishing industry, and
  10. Loggers.


Work-Related Injuries and Opioid Prescriptions

Recent studies suggest that workers with large employer health care coveragecomprise more than one-third of all opioid prescriptions. Of those, workers aged 55 to 64 had the highest number of opioid prescriptions in 2016, consuming 22% of all such prescriptions compared to only 12% for younger adults. Women get more prescriptions (15%) compared to men (12%), and the workers in the South get the drugs at a higher rate (15%) than those in the West (12%) or the Northeast (11%).


Are Opioids Worth the Risk (or the Expense)?

The question for employers is whether opioid medicines are actually helping them get their workers back on the job sooner than they would be without the opioid (or its risks). At least one recent study says no.


Researchers working through the auspices of Princeton Universitydetermined that opioid medications received by workers cost their employers an average of three times as much as non-opioid pain medications and that those workers treated with the opioids also stayed off the job for longer periods than their non-opioid-treated colleagues. After controlling their data for worker age, industry and regional variables, the study (which was focused on work-related low-back pain) noted that it produced at least some evidence of an overuse of opioids over longer terms, and that some workers would or could return to work faster if they had been given non-opioid pain medications in the first place.


Other studies support those conclusions. In a 2017 Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) study:


Further, those people who develop opioid use disorder are also most likely to develop a heroin addictionafter their opioid prescriptions (and opportunities for prescriptions) expire. Those people who become addicted to opioid pain relievers are 40 times more likely to turn to heroin when their opioid supply dries up.


There are several conclusions that can be drawn from the research:


Not only do America's employers lose over 100,000,000 production workdays annually because of work-related injuries, but they also pay exorbitantly for the opioid pain medications used to treat those injuries, too, through higher costs made over longer periods of time. Recent studies appear to indicate that there are only a few benefits to opioid prescriptions for injured workers and that those are decidedly off-set by their drawbacks and costs.


In our next Opioid Epidemic post, we will look at what governments around the country are doing to address the challenge.

America’s Opioid Epidemic: How it Impacts Work Comp

CompEx MSA is proud to provide this primer series on America's opioid epidemic to help its colleagues and fellow community members be more aware of the problem and mindful of what they can do to avoid contributing to it in the future.


Part One: What it is and how it got started

The 'opioid epidemic' is at the top of every day's news cycle it seems, but many people are baffled about what it is and what it might mean for them and their community. In the workers’ compensation (WC) industry, the concern has more significant ramifications as people who have been injured on the job  continue to receive prescriptions for opioids as pain relief medication. The short- and long-term impact of those prescriptions can be extreme, from premature death to lingering addiction and trauma years after the injury fades into memory.


To avoid unnecessary grief due to the consequences of opioid addiction flowing from a WC claim, industry participants who are involved in MSA account establishment and management should understand how the epidemic got started, how it's being managed today, and what they can do to curtail its future growth.


What is an Opioid?

'Opioids' are medications prescribed to relieve pain. The word refers to any substance that has an impact on those parts of the brain that control pain, reward, and addictive behaviors. Opioids provide short-term relief for the cravings that originate in those brain sectors.


The word 'opioid' is a derivation of 'opium,' the addictive milk produced by the opium poppy. Drugs derived from an opium base are called 'opiates.' For centuries, people have harvested opiate milk for both medicinal and recreational use, and its source poppies are currently legally grown in India, Australia, and Turkey. Well-known street and prescription opiates include morphine (also sold as MS Contin and Kadian), heroin, and codeine.


Pharmaceutical science has replicated the impact of opiates on the brain using foundational sources that are not opium or opium-derived. However, these substances mimic an opiate's effect on the brain and cause the same response in the body as the opium-based substances. As a group, they are known as 'opioids,' and individually, they are known as hydrocodone (also sold as Vicodin and Hycondan); oxycodone (Oxycontin and Percoset), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), and fentanyl (Duragesic).


Note that while all opiates are also opioids, not all opioids are also opiates.


Why are Opioids so Popular?

Opioids generate a euphoric sense of well-being that supersedes any pain or anxiety the sufferer may be feeling. When used correctly, they provide temporary relief from many of life's struggles, including pain caused by on-the-job injuries. However, opioids also pose risks even if they are not abused. High doses of opioids can trigger a heart attack or respiratory arrest.


Challenges to opioids arise when people stay on them longer than is advised, become increasingly tolerant of them (thus requiring a higher dosage to achieve the same effect), or develop a full-blown addiction to the sensation generated by taking the drug. In many cases that result in overdoses and premature deaths, the patients have been taking some form of opioid (natural or synthetic) in too high of a dose for too long of a time.


How did the epidemic start?

Tragically, the epidemic is the consequence of a convergence of well-intended but misguided assertionsthat opioid-based pain medications were a reasonable response to undertreated pain and could be safely used to relieve pain throughout the course of treatment for disease or injury.


Throughout most of the 20th Century, treatment for pain from any source was non-existent or underutilized. In response, in the 1990's, many scientific experts queried why opioids were not used more for that purpose. At the time, opioids were limited to use in cancer cases where they provided successful relief for malignant cancer pain. Without sufficient research on whether non-malignant pain was appropriate for opioid treatment, many in the medical community presumed that the drug's success in the oncology field would be replicated in the general pain-management field as well.


Subsequently, as more healthcare agencies encouraged reducing pain as a standard aspect of medical care, more physicians were encouraged to adopt opioids as a preferred medication for pain management. Drug companies began developing long-lasting or delayed-release versions (OxyContin) to add 'value' to the opioid pain management protocol. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of OxyContin prescriptions rose from 670,000 to over six million. Since 2003, both the number of opioid prescriptions and the number of related premature deaths have quadrupled. More than 33,000 people died of an opioid overdose in 2015; more than two million more were diagnosed as addicted to the drugs, and the cost to address the epidemic was estimated to be over $78 billion per year.


Adding to the tragedy: as doctors reduced their opioid prescriptions and/or patients completed their pain treatment protocols, those who remained addicted to the opioid sought its effect from street drugs or illegally sourced prescription drugs. Often heroin was both cheaper and easier to access so those people who had become dependent on the prescription medication were able to transition onto a street version without too much difficulty. Now, the incidence of addiction among users of both prescription and non-prescription opioids is high and growing.


Workers’ Compensation Cases and Opioids

Next time, we'll look at how the opioid epidemic has impacted the worker compensation industry. Recent research indicates that, even in the face of these challenging statistics, more than two-thirds of currently approved MSAs that include medications also include opioids, and one in five of those include two different forms of the drug. When the costs to maintain that coverage (both human and economic) span years or even decades, the long-term impact on both the worker and the funders of those MSA accounts can be devastating.


Check in for that post in September.