Column: Workers' Comp

Opinion | Why Aren’t We Doing More for Our Addicted Workers?

By: | September 28, 2018

Roberto Ceniceros is a retired senior editor of Risk & Insurance® and the former chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. Read more of his columns and features.

The workers’ compensation industry deserves applause for its efforts preventing new cases of opioid dependence and addiction.

Few people had heard of opioids a decade ago when certain claims payers first worked to counter injured worker dependency.

Statistics now reveal the success of programs that followed, mostly shown by employers’ declining spend on opioid prescriptions.

A large part of workers’ comp’s success lies with strategies for preventing new and future cases of dependence and addiction. But the workers’ comp track record is mixed on helping injured workers who were already addicted before the prevention movement took hold.

We don’t have solid data tracking those cases, but I’ve heard there now exists a “lost generation” of injured workers — those grown addicted, with some turning to street drugs to feed habits acquired after a workplace injury.

At least two narratives seek to describe claims-payer responsibility.

One comes from an injured worker who tells me he feels the insurance industry is failing him by terminating his opioid prescription without adequate outreach.

He argues addiction caused by prescribed medications for an industrial injury is compensable. He feels insurers’ efforts to stop opioid abuse are “driven to run injured workers off as fast as possible.”

Another narrative highlights the services claims payers fund to help injured workers address chronic pain and drug dependency.

They’ve paid for dependency treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, physical therapy, functional restoration, acupuncture, yoga, case management and other programs.

There are workers receiving those services who relapse and fall back into a pattern of drug use. Some supporters of the second narrative suggest injured workers need to take more responsibility.

I suspect there is truth in both narratives. Some insurers haven’t done the right thing and are not providing adequate support while some workers struggling with dependence or addiction won’t change.

Addiction is complicated; trying to solve the opioid problem is equally so.

I’ve heard insurers talk about closing claims as soon as workers finish addiction treatment and before a relapse. That gives workers one chance at rehab when those struggling with dependence often need more than one chance.

To shine a light on practices that are working, the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions in August introduced an Opioid Policy Inventory available on its website. It tracks multiple practices implemented within each of 33 states.

It’s hard to solve all opioid-related challenges. But the states applying multifaceted approaches seem to be realizing a positive impact. &

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