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Union Members With Opioid Addiction: How Members Can Help Each Other

By Jennifer S. Kiesewetter, Esq. | Jul 12, 2018

With over 115 Americans dying every day from opioid overdoses, addiction to prescription painkillers and illegal opioids is nothing short of devastating. In addition to the pain experienced by individuals, their families and their communities, it's also a burden on the national economy. The opiate crisis costs the U.S. $78.5 billion annually in expenses related to health care, addiction treatment, losses in productivity and criminal justice activity.


Likewise, union members with opioid addiction can put themselves, their colleagues and their communities at risk. This is why it's critical for trustees to educate their entire membership base on how to identify the signs of opioid addiction and report concerns appropriately.


Identifying the Signs of Opioid Addiction


Once your members have an understanding of the stakes of the opioid-addiction crisis, the first step toward equipping them to play a role in making things better is to teach them how to know opioid addiction when they see it in their fellow members.


While addiction may be indicated by bigger-picture consequences like patterns of diminished productivity, excessive absenteeism and increased workers' compensation claims, it may be more useful for members to be familiar with tangible physical symptoms. These may include:

  • Confusion, difficulty focusing or poor judgment
  • Constricted pupils
  • Slowed breathing
  • Intermittent loss of consciousness


Reporting Addiction to the Board


The impact of opioid addiction goes beyond those struggling with it directly. Especially in the workplace, it can create safety concerns.


As with any other workplace safety issue, boards should establish a reporting procedure that escalates concerns to the right people as efficiently as possible. It may help to set up a specific point of contact for addiction issues or even a dedicated email address.

Encouraging members to provide as much detail as possible may help the board make an initial evaluation of the report or point to next steps — it's important to gauge both the accuracy of the report and the urgency of the issue. Make it easy for the board to follow up with the reporter or the union steward for more information.


Since some members may be reluctant to report on their co-workers, it's important to remind them of the ways addiction puts everyone involved at risk and that the board's primary goal is to help its members get back on track.


Handling Member Reports


Reports should be handled carefully, as these concerns are governed by federal, state laws and privacy and confidentiality laws, as Total Safety notes. The board should be prepared to refer members struggling with addiction to employee assistance programs, mental health services or rehab centers. These steps can help members return to work after confronting their addiction issues.


Boards also have tools available to them to prevent long-term abuse through their health benefit and workers' compensation carriers. Anthem's Pharmacy Home Program, for example, informs doctors and pharmacists about high-risk patients' visits and prescription refills, helping to head off issues with opioid abuse.


Finally, address addiction more broadly through member education initiatives that may help prevent problems before they arise. Make sure that your members understand how legal prescriptions can give way to substance abuse and how their health insurance plan can help them reduce their risk of addiction by limiting their exposure to prescription painkillers and offering alternative treatments. Along with sharing this information at meetings or workshops, make it readily available for members to access whenever they need it.


Approaching opioid addiction from the ground up will help reduce the need for reporting — a sign that the problem is being solved before it puts your members in danger.


Jennifer Kiesewetter, founding and managing member of Kiesewetter Law Firm in Memphis, Tennessee, is a seasoned attorney in the field of employee benefits. Ms. Kiesewetter's practice includes regulatory compliance and governance with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Internal Revenue Code and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), in addition to the other federal laws governing employee benefits and health care compliance regulatory law. She's also an Adjunct Professor of Employee Benefits at University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. Additionally, Ms. Kiesewetter is a frequent writer and speaker on the topic of employee benefits and health care compliance regulatory law, locally, regionally and nationally.


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