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Opioid Abuse and Workers’ Compensation

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The use of opioids in California workers’ compensation claims has declined in recent years, but these drugs still pose a threat to California’s workers. Opioid drugs account for nearly a quarter of all prescriptions filled in the Golden State. A report by the California Workers’ Compensation Institute—an Oakland-based organization—sheds further light on the issue.

The report suggests that 27.2% of all workers’ compensation prescriptions are opioids, making them the single largest class of drug prescribed under the workers’ compensation program. This number significantly outranks possible alternative therapies, including anti-inflammatory drugs, musculoskeletal therapies, anticonvulsants, anti-ulcer drugs, and antidepressants.

The decrease in opioid prescriptions can be partially attributed to costs. According to the report, there has been an 85% increase, on average, in payment per opioid prescription in the past 10 years. All other prescriptions increased by only 39%.

Framing the Issue

Opioid abuse poses a compelling threat to public health. In 2014, deaths from drug overdoses hit an all-time high, and 60% of those deaths involved at least one prescription opioid. An estimated 78 people die each day from opioid overdose.

According to the CDC, since 1999, the number of prescriptions for opioids have quadrupled, but there has been no overall change in the amount of pain that the average American reports. Deaths from prescription opioids have likewise quadrupled since 1999. California is no exception to this rule; in 2014, more than 4,500 people died from drug overdoses.

Workers are victims of an overloaded and often slow-to-respond workers’ compensation system. Doctors, inundated with patients, are more likely to write a prescription for an opioid than recommend alternative therapies that may require further follow-up. As a result, California’s injured workers are more likely to develop unhealthy behaviors and use prescription opioids as drugs of abuse.

Fighting Opioid Abuse

Opioids can quickly become drugs of abuse because of their physiologically addictive nature. Regulators in California are pushing to curb abuse by developing a closed formula for medicine prescribed in the workers’ compensation program. The idea, say, regulators, is to stop addiction before it starts by changing prescribing behaviors.

Opioid use has been on an accelerated decline since 2012, when a number of policies went into effect to discourage prescription. Among intervention strategies are the use of independent medical review processes and medical networks. By addressing prescribing behavior, increasing oversight, and reinforcing accountability, regulators hope that opioid use by California’s workers will continue to decline.

Looking to the Future

Though the numbers appear promising, study leaders maintain that California’s workers’ compensation program still has plenty of ground to cover. Cautious optimism remains the dominant emotion, but policymakers assert that only further research will ascertain which of these intervention strategies is most efficacious in curbing opioid use.

“It will be important to monitor [the recent positive impact] and to explore what may be driving them,” said the CWCI report. “This information may be useful to those charged with shaping policies to govern the use of opioids in workers’ compensation.”

Have You Been a Victim of a Workplace Accident?

If you have been injured in an accident at work, you may be wondering how you will pay for your medical expenses, make up for lost wages, and effectively manage your condition. When navigating the complex system of workers’ compensation, it is best to have an advocate at your side to help you with the claims process. At the law offices of DiMarco Araujo Montevideo, our workers compensation lawyers have represented work injury clients and fought for their needs for years. If you have questions about our services, contact our office for a free initial consultation. We will advise you of your legal options, risk-free.