Majority of employers have no program for opioid use, suicide prevention: report

Not many employers are ready to invest in opioid addiction and suicide prevention programs, a new study shows. (Getty/BackyardProduction)

A majority of employers have no plans to focus on opioid abuse or suicide prevention, despite the growing rates of deaths connected to these risk factors, according to a new study.

Just 22% of employers have such a program in place or plan to implement one in 2019 to addresses these two issues, according to a recent study by Willis Towers Watson, a consulting and broking company.

“Mental health issues from opioid addiction to depression are some of the most prevalent diagnoses—and they represent not only a huge human cost, but also substantial medical expenses and losses in productivity,” Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D., Harvard professor and health management practice co-leader for Willis Towers Watson, told FierceHealthcare. 

While the survey "showed that employers are increasingly prioritizing the behavioral health of employees," the authors "were surprised to see that the majority of employers have no plans to focus on opioid abuse (55%) or suicide prevention (63%)," Levin-Scherz said.

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Data analysis finds that employees suffering from these clinical conditions tend to amass two-to-four times more medical claims and six times more emergency room visits than an average person. However, just 23% of employers said they will consider initiatives to prevent opioid abuse in 2020 or 2021 and 15% are considering suicide prevention plans. 

Although not specific to suicide prevention, the data does suggest that more employers are looking to support mental health initiatives, according to the report. Although currently only 46% of employers have taken any action around mental health in 2019, 70% plan to have a program in place by 2021. 

“If care for the welfare, productivity and retention of employees isn’t sufficient motivation for employers to act fast to bring adequate access to behavioral healthcare services, the financial strain of stress, anxiety, depression, suicide and substance abuse on their bottom line simply cannot be ignored,” Mandie Conforti, senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson, said in a statement. 

So why the lack of initiatives? For one, Levin-Scherz noted the taboo associated for a long time around drug abuse and suicide. Plus, the issue is further complicated by the barriers of access to behavioral healthcare in the U.S., he said.

“Even as more individuals and families face behavioral health conditions, there are not enough clinicians available—and, of course, there is often a wide range in quality of care,” Levin-Scherz said. 

In addition, some employers may be in denial that addiction and suicide could impact their workplace. Levin-Scherz recommends several strategies for employers to implement concerning behavioral health. 

First, employers need to ensure adequate coverage and reasonable cost sharing within the healthcare plan. 

“Employees, whether they work in a rural or urban environment, in the office or remotely, must have access to networks with high-quality mental healthcare providers,” he said. “Employers should be certain that provider directories accurately represent which providers are accepting new patients.”  

RELATED: Study: Compliance costs psychiatric facilities nearly $2B a year

Second, he recommended that employers should have a plan that gives members ready access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, without excessive cost sharing or difficult prior authorization requirements. Third, consider incorporating in telemedicine or onsite or near-site delivery options to further remove the barriers to seeking out care. 

In addition, Levin-Scherz says it is “paramount” that managers and supervisors are trained to discuss mental health with employees, along with offering an Employee Assistance Program so that employees feel like they have someone to turn to beyond their direct manager. Finally, employers may also consider launching a suicide awareness and prevention campaign, in addition to incorporating behavioral health into diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Of course, payers also play a role in changing this situation. Levin-Scherz said insurers need to offer robust coverage for behavioral healthcare and with low economic barriers to obtaining this care. Their network should include access to providers across all geographies and when needed, work with employers to integrate digital or virtual care. 

“Employers recognize that they have a role to play in fostering their staffs’ financial, emotional and physical health. It’s encouraging to see that a critical mass of companies are taking the appropriate measures to get to the root of these behavioral health issues moving forward,” Levin-Scherz added.  

Where you can find help
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. It provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people in suicidal crisis or distress, or for those who are helping a person in crisis.
  • For online chat, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides a confidential chat window with counselors available 24/7.