The Opioid Epidemic: Impact to Workers’ Compensation

Opioids, powerful painkillers that can be highly addictive, are causing a national health crisis that is also wreaking havoc in Arizona.

Arizona opioid-related deaths have reached alarming heights, prompting Gov. Doug Ducey to declare a public health emergency. The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) reported more than 790 deaths, or two people every day, died from an opioid overdose in 2016. The trend shows a startling increase of 74 percent over the past four years and the highest number of deaths in 10 years. Recently released near real-time data shows an even more grim surge.

And the alarming news continues.

According to the ADHS, the U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population but consumes 80% of the global opioid supply. Locally, four out of 10 Arizona adults knows someone addicted to prescription painkillers.

What is an opioid?

A lot of different drugs are called opioids. They represent the strongest pain medications available. Prescription opioids usually come in pill form and are given to treat severe or chronic pain — for example, pain from surgery, sports injuries, workplace injuries or cancer.

The impact on workers’ compensation

How is the workers compensations industry being impacted as a result of the growing opioid epidemic? According to Healthesytems, a medical cost management provider, the use of opioids in workers’ compensation has risen over the past decade along with the cost of medications.

Mitchell International, a medical claims processor, further outlines the challenge:

• More than $6 billion is spent on prescription drugs in the workers’ compensation field on an annual basis, representing approximately 19% of overall medical costs.

• Nearly 70% of pain drugs prescribed are opioids, a third of overall prescriptions.

• Individuals using opioids over an extended time may experience tolerance, leading to a higher dose to obtain the same level of pain relief. This often leads to escalating doses of opioids over time.

• Higher doses for extended periods are associated with higher rates of dependence, higher rates of addiction, poor health outcomes and significantly higher claims cost.
Most experts agree: There has never been a more profound impact on the cost of workers’ compensation claims from a single issue than the abuse of opioid prescriptions for the management of chronic pain.

Sponsoring change

Workers’ comp and property and casualty insurance provider CopperPoint wants to be a part of the solution. The company’s Director, Medical Management, Gale Vogler, points to the Industrial Commission of Arizona, which in October 2016 adopted the Work Loss Data Institute’s Official Disability Guidelines–Treatment in Workers’ Compensation. The guidelines contain key chapters pertaining to chronic pain and use of opioids for pain management.

“These guidelines provide CopperPoint the framework to monitor and advocate appropriate use and management of opioids. The adherence to these guidelines promote optimal recovery and return to work for all injured workers in the state of Arizona,” said Gale.

In addition, in June 2017, Gov. Ducey declared a statewide health emergency to address the growing epidemic of opioid misuse in Arizona.

The declaration allows agencies to more rapidly respond to this public health crisis and empowers Arizona to utilize all necessary resources to combat it, including coordinating efforts between public- and private-sector partners.

For more information on the emergency declaration, along with information and updates on the state’s progress in turning the tide on the Arizona opioid epidemic, visit the Arizona Department of Health Services website.

Remember, pain medications are safe and effective only when used as directed. However, misuse of these products can be extremely harmful and even deadly. Health experts urge consumers who take pain relief medications to follow their health care professional’s instructions and establish and follow a treatment plan.

You can read more about the opioid use and workers’ compensation in CopperPoint’s white paper, The Negative Impact of Opioid Use Among Injured Workers.

CopperPoint Insurance Companies is a leading provider of workers’ compensation insurance and property and casualty insurance products.

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