Should HR Policy Address One of the Biggest HR Issues Hardly Anyone Is Talking About?

5/9/17

Dan Yager and I need your input on a question we are asking ourselves.  It began a few weeks ago when I had the privilege of participating in a CHRO industry group meeting that had several excellent sessions, but the most interesting discussion wasn’t on the agenda.  It came during the evening when people began speaking from the heart about the impact of the opioid epidemic on their companies and themselves.  J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, talked about this in his presentation at our CHRO Summit in March.  As someone who grew up in a family riven by drug abuse, he questioned whether employers were factoring in the amount of time and resources being absorbed today by families dealing with this tragedy.

How significant is the opioid crisis?  In Maryland, Governor Hogan recently declared a state of emergency.  He said that because drug overdose deaths of have surged there for the past six years, he finds no other issue of greater importance.  Across the nation, more than 33,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2015.  For comparison purposes, we have been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq for 159 months, and 6,853 Americans have lost their lives during that time.  At the present rates of opioid deaths, at least 440,000 Americans will overdose in the next 159 months if something doesn’t change, and right now the problem gets worse each year.  According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, “Between 2002 and 2012, the number of opioid analgesics dispensed by U.S. pharmacies have skyrocketed from 142 million to 248 million. Drug poisoning death rates more than tripled between 1999 and 2012.”  Robert Anderson, who oversees death statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, "I don't think we've ever seen anything like this. Certainly not in modern times.”

In searching for objective data for how the opioid crisis is affecting the workplace, a 2011 study prepared by a team of doctors, pharmacists, and academics is instructive.  Entitled “Societal Costs of Prescription Opioid Abuse, Dependence and Misuse in the United States,” it calculated that the costs were $55.7 billion in 2007.  Surprisingly, only nine percent of those costs went to law enforcement.  Rather, workplace costs constituted 46 percent and health care 45 percent.  Also, that study used ten-year-old data; imagine what the numbers would be today.

Other studies have shown that New England and the Ohio/Kentucky/West Virginia region are among the hardest hit while Texas, California, and the northern Plains states experience much lower rates.   In Huntington, West Virginia, one in 10 infants born in a hospital there endure excruciating withdrawal from some type of drug—heroin, opiates, cocaine, alcohol or a combination of them—during the first weeks of their lives.  The crisis hits all economic groups, with the legal profession having twice the addiction rate of the general population.  In a message to corporate executives, an official with the Betty Ford Foundation said that "The more professional stature you have, the less likely you are going to be forced into recovery, and the longer your addiction is likely to go on unchecked."  That’s a sobering message when the National Institute on Drug Abuse puts the relapse rate for drug addiction at 40 to 60 percent.

Our association is focusing considerable attention, as we should and must, on the Congressional debate over reform of the Affordable Care Act.  But as Congress wrestles with it, should we also be focused on the impact of the nation’s opioid epidemic and changes in health policy and HR practice that would help us address this problem? 

We all know friends and co-workers who are dealing with family members and/or raising their children because of this epidemic.  We know people are coming to work every day addicted to prescription drugs.  In fact, you may have read Michele Zumwalt’s book Ruby Shoes.  "I could show up at Xerox and put on a presentation, and I was high on Percodan," the author recalls. "I mean, fully out of it. I don't know how many I had taken, but so many that I don't remember the presentation. And do you know that people didn't know?"  We know that much of the treatment is being covered by company plans and that employees are having to take extended amounts of time off from work to deal with the hell that addiction creates. 

From conversations with the membership, my sense is that yes, the Association could provide a valuable service both to its members and the public by addressing the impact of opioid abuse.  A CHRO who is a member of the Association and has two teenaged daughters, one in college, considers it a moral imperative.  Last year, she had to go to court to take custody of her cousin’s two-month-old and 14-month-old so they wouldn’t be removed to foster care.  As Vance writes in Hillbilly Elegy, the system is rigged towards pushing children into foster care, not keeping them with their extended families, which makes the problems even worse.  Still, this CHRO overnight became a mother to four.

In my next commentary, I’ll offer a series of suggestions about specific actions our community could take to address this issue.  In the meantime, I would very much appreciate hearing any thoughts you might have on this subject.  Please write me at jmcguiness@hrpolicy.org.