Opioid Addiction and the Excessively High Healthcare Cost for Employers

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For Employers
3 min read


While the impact of opioid addiction to people and their lives is clear, opioid use disorder has become a major business issue as well. 

The National Safety Council reports that, while 75 percent of U.S. employers say their workplaces have been directly impacted by opioid use, only 17 percent feel well prepared to deal with this issue.

Opioid use disorders often begin when opioids are prescribed for medical reasons like chronic pain and to support recovery from surgery. But opioids have a very addictive nature. Opioid use disorder is both widespread and extremely costly for employers, with an annual per employee spend of $14,724.

The overdose crisis is driven by three categories of opioids: prescription painkillers (for example Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin), heroin and fentanyl (illicit opioids). Any opioid can cause impairment, dependence and addiction, even if taken as prescribed. From 2011 to 2018, the primary driver of opioid overdose deaths shifted from prescription painkillers to heroin, and then to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Many of these overdose deaths also involved other drugs or alcohol. This is because people switching from prescription opioids to heroin do so because it is cheaper and easier to obtain when prescription opioids aren’t accessible. This is important because employers often (wrongly)believe that they have solved the problem by having their PBM add restrictions on script refills. This graph from the CDC, 3 Waves of the Rise in Opioid OverdoesDeaths, provides an excellent visual of this point.

Undeniably, the U.S. is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. More than 232,000 Americans lost their lives to overdoses involving prescription opioids from 1999 to 2018. And, nearly 70 percent of the 67,367 drug overdose deaths in2018 involved an opioid, making drug overdoses from opioids a leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S.

In addition to fatalities, opioid overdoses can lead to a loss of consciousness, brain damage and cardiac arrythmias. Fatalities can also result indirectly from accidents and injuries related to being under the influence of opioids.

Opioid use disorders can generate excessively high healthcare costs for employers: 

·      Workers with pain medication use disorder cost employers more than twice as much per year ($5,586) as workers with no SUDs.

·      People with pain medication use disorder are more than twice as likely as their peers to have been hospitalized, and their stay is twice as long as those without a SUD.


In addition to healthcare, additional employer costs associated with opioid use disorders include:

·      Workers’Compensation – employees who were prescribed even one opioid pill were found to cost four times more in workers’ compensation claims than those who weren’t prescribed any.

·      Missed worked days and lost productivity from the misuse of prescription pain killers cost employers an estimated $25.6 billion a year. 

The cost equation is magnified when employees have more than one substance addiction, which is common. Adding to the healthcare cost burden are mental health issues. People with addictions suffer from serious psychological distress, depression and anxiety – particularly those with a prescription opioid use disorder. These workers also stand out relative to suffering serious distress, which they report seven times more frequently than their peers without an addiction. And, while workers with addictions are usually twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety as their peers, those with addiction to prescription opioids are four times more likely to experience these ailments.  

Managing opioid addiction in your workplace is crucial now more than ever. Find a solution that fits with your organization to help your employees return to the best versions of themselves while saving on long-term healthcare costs.

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