A pharmacy technician poses for a picture with some of them most widely used prescription painkillers, hydrocodone and acetaminophen tablets. AP Photo

Employers track medication use to combat abuse

Prescription drug abuse is at the forefront of human resources issues for many employers in Ohio — the epicenter of a national heroin and prescription drug epidemic that resulted in more overdose deaths last year than fatal car wrecks in the state.

To address the problem, an increasing number of employers are examining the medications their employees take to determine how often and how many of their workers have been prescribed opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin and Percocet.

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In fact, about half of all employers surveyed recently by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans have either conducted a prescription drug claims analysis to identify possible abuse or are considering such plan analysis.

A third of employers reported that prescription drug addiction is at least somewhat prevalent among their workforce, and the majority — 67 percent — believe that substance abuse challenges are greater now than five years ago, according to the IFEBP’s 2016 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Benefits survey of 344 member organizations, including private and public employers in the United States and Canada.

“Substance abuse is costly for employers,” said Julie Stich, a certified employee benefits specialist and spokeswoman for the IFEBP. “Reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and disability claims, and increased prescription drug and medical expenses add up to have a significant impact on an employer’s bottom line.”

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Brittany Isaacs of Eaton said she doesn’t have an issue with her employer taking steps to detect drug-related problems — as long as she knows about it.

“I think they should tell you if they are going to look into your medications,” the 31-year-old office worker said as she exited the Starbuck’s in Oakwood on her way to work last week. “If they’re up-front, and it’s in your workers’ handbook, I don’t have a problem with it. It’s like any other kind of drug screen. They always ask you what prescriptions your on, and what medications your taking. Some medications can affect a job, so I understand where they are coming from.”

But Emily Gilbert — a 22-year-old administrative assistant from Centerville — said she thinks her medical records and other health information should be private and protected, and she wants to know who has the information.

“If they’re looking into that kind of information behind your back, who knows what else they’re looking into. It’s an invasion of privacy to me. I didn’t know they could do that,” Gilbert said.

In general, HIPPA laws prohibit employers from accessing patient records or insurance claims for individual employees without the employees knowledge or consent because it could result in discrimination, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But employers can access prescription drug information from third-party pharmacy benefit managers, who track drug claims for company health plans and can release that information to the employers who sponsor the plans as long as they don’t identify individuals, according to said Mike Suttman, president of the Dayton-based employee benefits brokerage McGohan Brabender Inc.

Still, the claims data can include other identifiers such as age, gender, and the zip code of individual enrollees, and the type and number of prescriptions filled.

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“Most pharmacy benefit managers do have programs and protocols in place to say, hey, here’s an individual who injured their back falling off a horse. They were prescribed OxyContin for a couple of weeks, but they’ve been getting the prescription for six months, or two years. There’s a likelihood that there’s a drug addiction problem going on here,” Suttman said.

While some workers may view that as a privacy issue, Chris Kershner, vice president of public policy and economic development for the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said employers have rights, too.

“Employers have a right to know if there’s substance abuse in their organization,” Kershner said. “They have the right to ensure that their organization is free of substance abuse so they can ensure the safety of their employees and their customers, or even help individuals who may have an abuse problem.”

But even if they identify the problem, addiction is not an easy problem for employers to tackle, according to Stich.

“Employees who are struggling with substance abuse issues are often doing so in secret,” she said. “They may fear that admitting a problem will cost them their job.”

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Still, such concerns may be exaggerated in many cases, based on the IFEBP survey, which found many employers are now providing support for workers struggling with substance abuse through employee assistance programs and wellness programs that include a substance abuse component.

Of organizations providing substance abuse treatment benefits, 89 percent cover outpatient in-person treatment sessions, and 85 percent include inpatient hospital or clinic treatment, according to the survey.

Other commonly provided options include prescription drug therapies (67 percent), inpatient residential treatment centers (67 percent), outpatient telemedicine treatment services (55 percent) and referrals to community services (41 percent).

“Taking measures to prevent and treat substance abuse is beneficial to an organization, and possibly life-saving for employees and their families,” Stich said.

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