Kentucky’s opioid crisis focus of new Kentucky Camber Workforce Initiative

Published 1:02 pm Thursday, June 27, 2019

Kentucky’s business community has become acutely aware in recent years that the state’s opioid epidemic is more than a public health issue. It is also a serious workforce issue – one that employers must address to meet their challenges of finding and retaining workers.

To involve the business community in combating the epidemic, the Kentucky Chamber’s Workforce Center is partnering with the state cabinets for Health and Family Services and Justice & Public Safety, the biopharmaceutical company Alkermes, and Aetna Better Health of Kentucky on a new, employer-focused initiative.

The Opioid Response Program for Business was announced Monday (June 24, 2019) during the Chamber’s inaugural Opioid Summit that featured presentations by national and state leaders on efforts to find solutions to the problem that is taking a grim toll on Kentucky’s families, communities and businesses.

Email newsletter signup

That impact is detailed in a new Chamber report, also released at the summit, focusing on the scope of the problem, efforts to reduce abuse and best practices to address the challenges.

The Opioid Response Program for Business, to be led by a task force of business and industry representatives, will work directly with employers to help audit their policies and recommend best practices to maintain a drug-free workplace while supporting a recovery-friendly culture. It will focus on destigmatizing the addiction epidemic and supporting employers’ role in opioid prevention, treatment and recovery in the workplace.

Jonathan Copley, CEO of Aetna Better Health of Kentucky, will chair the task force. “As business leaders, we cannot sit idle in the face of this epidemic,” Copley said. “We must be an active part of the solution to recover our citizens and our workforce.”

The program, the first of its kind in the nation, spotlights Kentucky’s critical problem with substance abuse and addiction. The Chamber report, “Opioid Abuse in Kentucky: The Business Community’s Perspective,” noted that Kentucky’s drug overdose rate was fourth highest among the states in 2017, when 1,565 Kentuckians died of an overdose. The rate of opioid prescriptions that year was seventh highest in the nation.

“To put these numbers in perspective, while 1,565 Kentuckians died from a drug overdose in 2017, 782 people died in traffic accidents, and 263 were murdered,” the report noted. “Even more alarming: the problem continues to get worse. The number of Kentucky drug overdose deaths in 2017 represented an 11.5 percent increase over 2016.”

In addition to the devastating impact of opioid abuse on Kentuckians and their families, the criminal justice system and the state’s efforts to build and sustain a quality workforce also experience the negative effects.

The number of offenders sent to state prison for drug possession more than doubled from 2012 to 2016, and 38 percent of all offenders were sentenced for drug offenses, according to the state CJPAC Justice Reinvestment Work Group. As the cost of incarceration is $18,406 annually per inmate, the approximately 4,500 additional inmates in prison for drug offenses in 2016 cost Kentucky taxpayers more than $82 million per year – and this doesn’t include those previously incarcerated or sent to prison since 2016, the Chamber report noted.

Economic research has found a strong link between rising opioid prescriptions and declining workforce participation rates, estimating that nearly half of men age 25 to 54 who are not in the workforce take pain medication daily and a higher rate of absenteeism among opioid abusers who work. Kentucky’s high level of substance abuse was a contributing factor in the state’s low workforce participation rate (one of the lowest in the country) in a 2017 Kentucky Chamber of Commerce report.

“Employers are feeling the impact firsthand,” said Beth Davisson, Executive Director of the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center. “As businesses struggle to find and retain workers, the opioid crisis is making the challenges even greater.”

Kentucky has taken a number of actions in recent years to combat the opioid epidemic, but the persistent need requires additional effort.

The Chamber report, noting that the organization believes state policy should stress treatment over punishment for opioid abusers, also recommended:

• Reclassifying drug possession as a misdemeanor to reduce the number of offenders jailed for that offense;

• Increasing state support for substance abuse treatment;

• Continuing efforts to make naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose, widely available;

• Continuing use of mandatory prescription programs;

• Encouraging the creation of needle exchange programs;

• Creating local collaboratives with community and business leaders to develop solutions;

• Supporting efforts to hire people in recovery.