Opioid abuse could be costing U.S. employers about $18 billion a year in lost productivity and medical expenses, according to a study that also finds employers are paying for one-third of opioid prescriptions that end up being abused.
Health information firm, Castlight Health on Wednesday released an analysis of aggregated data from nearly a million employer-based health insurance claims between 2011 and 2015. It found that patients who both were given more than a 90-day supply and received a prescription from four or more providers were defined as having "opioid abuse."
On average, 4.5% of employees who received an opioid prescription were found to show signs of abuse. Overall, this group accounted for 32% of all written prescriptions and 40% of prescription painkiller spending, according to the study.
The study found employers paid an average of more than $19,000 a year in overall healthcare expenses for issues related to opioid dependence compared with $10,000 in costs for workers without such issues.
Kristin Torres Mowat, Castlight's senior vice president for plan development and data operations, said the report shows the impact of the current opioid epidemic on the country's workforce. But it also reveals how employers can address the crisis.
Torres Mowat said employers should use prescribing trends to understand their employees' needs and guide them to proper care to prevent or treat addiction.
Some of the information gleaned reflects the make-up of a drug epidemic that's taken hold of many rural communities in southern states.
The study found that 7.4% of workers ages 50 and over had an opioid addiction compared with only 2% of employees between the ages of 20 and 34. Also, 6% of patients living in areas where the average per capita income was $40,000 or less were addicted compared with 2.7% of people living in areas where per capita income was $85,000 or higher.
Opioid abuse among employees is estimated to account for more than 64% of medically related absenteeism from work in 2011 and 90% of disability expenses, according to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Managed Care.
Moreover, workers who served as caregivers for those with opioid-use disorders made up 36% of missed work in 2011 and 10% of disability costs resulting in more than $25 billion a year in lost work productivity, according to the AJMC study.