Study: Painkiller Abuse Costs Employers $25 Billion

By Pat Anson, Editor

Painkiller abuse is costing U.S. employers over $25 billion a year in lost productivity and missed work days, according to a new analysis by a healthcare consulting firm that also found that the vast majority of patients who are prescribed opioids do not have an abuse problem.

The “white paper” was produced by Healthentic, a Seattle-based company that helps employers identify health savings to reduce the cost of employee healthcare. You can download a copy of the report, called “Painkiller Abuse Is Costing Your Company” by clicking here.

"Opioid misuse costs employers in multiple ways including more medical costs and productivity loss," said Jeff O'Mara, CEO of Healthentic. "Employers have a unique opportunity to help people get more productivity for less money by identifying and engaging the people at risk."

Healthentic reviewed four years of health insurance claims data from 2011 to 2014 and found that only a small percentage of pain patients were misusing or abusing opioids.

"It was remarkably consistent that most people with an opioid prescription do not have a chronic or abuse problem. In fact, 87% of those prescribed an opioid in those four years didn’t show a cause for concern in the claims data,” the report states.

And what about the other 13 percent?

Healthentic identified three red flags in those patients that raised potential cause for concern:

  1. Ten or more opioid prescriptions
  2. A prescribed opioid supply for 120 days or more
  3. A week or more of overlapping prescriptions for opioids and benzodiazepine, a sedative used to treat anxiety, depression and insomnia

“These people – just 13% -- are responsible for 92% of employer’s costs. And if you break it down even further, the 7% of the population with an opioid prescription that have two or more issues account for over 80% of the cost,” the report states.

Healthentic said opioid abusers used significantly more healthcare resources than non-opioid users, and cited a study that estimated the cost of their healthcare at $10,627 annually. In addition, opioid abusers cost employers $1,244 more in lost work days compared to non-abusers.

The company advised employers that opioids “should not be the first line of treatment” for back pain and other common workplace injuries, and said over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol and ibuprofen are “a more affordable and safer option.”

Healthentic recommended four actions to employers to address opioid abuse:

  1. Understand and insist upon conservative prescribing guidelines for pain treatment for all participating providers.
  2. Evaluate and know which employees are at risk by reviewing their insurance claims.
  3. Educate employees about the risks of opioid drug use.
  4. Increase and ensure access to treatment programs for employees with an abuse problem.

"Our hope is this analysis provides further insight into the societal and financial issue of prescription painkillers, and helps employers take strides in alleviating the problem to ensure the well-being of their people," said O'Mara.

Healthentic provides healthcare data and analytic services to nearly 11,000 corporate clients in 19 states.