Together Arkansas initiative aims to curb opioid epidemic

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,749 views 

A recently-launched initiative to help employers and employees navigate the opioid crisis in Arkansas aims to provide resources for the business community and its workers.

The Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, in conjunction with the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas, and Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, are putting marketing muscle behind the resource-rich project. The web site — TogetherArkansas.com — offers video resources, online tools, and downloadable guides to address opioid addiction.

Citing public health problems, declining worker productivity, and costs to the healthcare system, the three major supporters of Together Arkansas say private enterprise must engage dramatically along with public efforts to curtail the opioid crisis.

“Three out of four companies have had some impact as a result of an employee’s abuse of opioids,” said Randy Zook, CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber and AIA. “It’s a big challenge for lost time, absenteeism, even deaths. And it’s not just employees, it’s also employees’ family members, so this has just a big impact on time available at work.”

“From our perspective, we’ve heard the opioid epidemic be described as ‘The All-American Disease,’ and by that, that means all Americans, regardless of age, race, economic status, background, are affected by the opioid epidemic,” said Arkansas Blue Cross CEO Curtis Barnett. “Unfortunately, it’s not a disease, where you see a quick diagnosis, a quick treatment, and then somebody return to what we might think of as a normal life, very quickly. Typically, it’s a long journey.”

TogetherArkansas.com offers videos that explain the impact of opioids, legally-sound drug-free workplace policies, crafting policies that fit your company culture, and how workplace drug testing can be used to help addicts.

“Every family is potentially at risk for this,” said AFMC CEO Ray Hanley, who noted the opioid death rate exceeded vehicle accidents last year. “It has actually lowered the average lifespan in this country, which has been creeping up for years. But now, for the last year or two, the average lifespan has actually dropped and it is in very large part because of the [opioid] impact in this 18-64 age group.”

All three men participated in a roundtable on the issue on Talk Business & Politics.

In the most recent year for statistics, there were 194 opioid-related deaths in 2017 — more than one every other day. Prescriptions for pain medication are the most common denominator leading to opioid addiction and Arkansas has one of the highest prescription percentages of opioids in the U.S. There were 105.4 prescriptions per 100 people in 2017.

“I think it’s not just the prescriptions,” Barnett said. “People unfortunately are suffering from pain and they need pain relief, and it’s going to take really a multi-faceted approach to be able to address this problem, and I think that’s what really attracted us to being part of this collaboration.”

Zook said he does not think there will be enough public or private resources to eradicate the illegal drug market that is contributing to the opioid crisis.

“We’ve talked mostly about the legal drugs and the prescription of those drugs, but the other side of it is very dangerous stuff that continues to flood into the U.S. from outside the U.S., typically through Mexico but produced in China, fentanyl, for instance. This stuff is just absolutely dynamite and incredibly dangerous and deadly,” Zook said.

Hanley said that a current round of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers will lead to more funding to prevent addiction and he cited a historical precedent that may repeat itself.

“I think some settlement along the lines of what we saw with tobacco 20 years ago, I think, is inevitable. I think these [pharmaceutical] companies, for the benefit of their shareholders and others, want to get this behind them, so I think there is going to be a global settlement of some sort,” he said.

“I also think we need to do a better job of getting people insured. We still have too many uninsured people in this state and without coverage, you don’t always have access to the treatment and the services you need. We need to do a better job with some of the insurance programs about recognizing and covering substance abuse and behavioral health issues. So, coverage is important in order to get access to services,” Hanley added.

You can watch their full conversation in the video below.

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