Combating the Substance Use Disorder Epidemic Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
Statement for the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce, Health Subcommittee Hearing
April 14, 2021 | Washington, D.C.
Statement for the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce, Health Subcommittee Hearing
April 14, 2021 | Washington, D.C.
For a printer-friendly copy
Thank you for holding this hearing to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing substance use and overdose crises in America and to identify additional legislative action to provide Americans the help, treatment and care they need to recover from this difficult time and prevent further impacts. The National Safety Council (NSC) appreciates the opportunity to submit these comments for the record.
NSC is America’s leading nonprofit safety advocate and has been for over 100 years. As a mission- based organization, we work to eliminate the leading causes of preventable death and injury, focusing our efforts on the workplace, roadway and impairment. We create a culture of safety to keep people safer at work and beyond the workplace so they can live their fullest lives. Our more than 15,000 member companies, including federal agencies, represent seven million employees at nearly 50,000 U.S. worksites.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a serious toll on the mental health of Americans, with 40% of U.S. adults reporting that they struggled with mental health or substance use in June 2020.1 Studies show that from February to December 2020, the risk of having a general anxiety disorder increased by 80%, and the risk of having a depressive disorder has increased by 145%,2 with women showing the largest increases in stress and anxiety. Most recently, we learned that the percentage of adults who had anxiety or a depressive disorder symptoms during the past seven days, and those with unmet mental health needs during the past four weeks, increased significantly from August 2020 to February 2021. One in four adults who experienced such symptoms reported that they needed but did not receive counseling or therapy for their mental health.3
Mental distress and illness are closely linked with substance use and misuse. Recently released data show the 2018 decrease in both general and opioid-related overdose fatalities was reversed in 2019. The number of drug overdose fatalities topped 70,000 in 2019, and opioid overdose fatalities neared 50,000.4 The U.S. reached a tragic new high in the 12-month period ending in August 2020, with over 88,000 opioid overdose fatalities reported.5 Lastly, over 40 states are reporting an increase in opioid overdose fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.6 These increases may be linked, in part, to increased feelings of stress, loss of control, and isolation in response to the pandemic and subsequent quarantine during stay-at-home orders, as well as impacts on varying socioeconomic factors that increase risk for substance use (e.g., financial and housing insecurity).7
To address the increased rate of substance use and mental health challenges, NSC supports creation of cooperative programs at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to provide employers with access to substance use mental health support resources. Multiple studies show that for people experiencing a mental illness during their lives, nearly half will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.8 Given that NIOSH has extensive workplace knowledge and makes “Mental Health in the Workplace” a priority area within the Total Worker Health program, NSC recommends NIOSH as the home for such a program.9
NSC encourages the Committee to focus on the following three areas in particular – the employer role in addressing the opioid crisis, expanding access to treatment and recovery services and supports, and addressing racial inequities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 95% of all opioid overdoses in the
U.S. strike working age adults.10 Over 70% of adults with a substance use disorder (SUD) are in the workforce,11 and 75% of employers have been impacted by employee opioids use in the workplace.12 Employers have an essential role to play in preventing opioid use and misuse and supporting employees through treatment and recovery. Research has demonstrated that providing wrap-around services enhances treatment retention and improves treatment outcomes.13 People in workplace- mandated treatment have better or similar outcomes on a variety of metrics, including employment stability at 1 and 5 years after treatment.14
The annual cost to employers of an untreated SUD ranges from an average of $8,255 – $14,000 per employee, depending on their industry and role, and workers with substance use disorders miss two more weeks of work annually than their peers, averaging nearly five working weeks (24.6 days) a year.15 However, workers in recovery, who have reported receiving substance use treatment in the past and have not had a substance use disorder within the last 12 months, miss the fewest days of any group – even the general workforce – at 10.9 days. Additionally, each employee who recovers from a SUD saves their company over $8,500 on average in turnover, replacement and healthcare costs.16 Given these numbers are dated through 2019, NSC expects to see these costs grow throughout 2020 and into 2021. NSC has a free, online tool for employers to estimate the cost of substance use in their workplace based on the size of the employee base, industry, and state at nsc.org/drugsatwork.
Workplaces are currently facing unprecedented challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic with increased rates of substance use, and employers must be part of the solution. Employers will need resources, support and training to increase access to treatment, create recovery-ready workplaces, and take other steps necessary to combat the continued substance use and opioid crisis. Recovery-ready workplaces must not only focus on supporting recovery, but also providing a full spectrum of resources and support for employees and their families to address prevention and treatment needs, as well as reduce stigma.
Treatment for mental health and SUD is effective, but access to treatment, which was a significant barrier before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been strained further. Only 10.3% of people with an SUD in 2019 received any treatment, and only 18% of people with an opioid use disorder (OUD) received medications for addiction treatment (MAT).21 Additional disruptions have occurred in recovery support systems which are critical given that social exclusion and the inability to find employment are associated with relapse and exacerbated struggles with substance use.22 Of note, both of these experiences have become more common during of the pandemic. Given the clear need for increased access to treatment, there are a variety of tactics the federal government should consider, as well as actions to support individuals in recovery.
Supporting EEOC Actions and Clarifications to Increase Access to Treatment
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued two new guidance documents23 addressing the opioid epidemic and its impact on the workplace in August 2020, providing clarity on opioid use disorder and its relation to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This guidance is critically important for workplaces as they support employees with an opioid use disorder.
Enforcing and Supporting Parity
Mental health parity and addiction equity is a critical component of combatting the opioid crisis, so that coverage, payment and treatment for mental health conditions and substance use disorders are equal to that of other chronic and acute health conditions. Mental health parity, as designated by the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAE), makes effective care available to those suffering from mental illness and/or substance use disorder. Work needs to be done to ensure that those in need of mental health and substance use treatment receive it to prevent tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Medicaid is a critical tool to reduce overdose deaths, help individuals receive treatment, receive recovery support and mitigate impacts of mental illnesses and increase treatment. There are several points where Medicaid and substance use intersect, including:
NSC recognizes the need to confront racial and other equity issues related to existing drug policies throughout this process, especially given the disproportionate impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on communities of color and other vulnerable populations, and encourages Congress to do the same. Collaboration among community leaders, associations, advocates and the general population with policymakers, government agencies, educators, prevention specialists, employers and workplaces, and treatment and recovery providers is urgently needed, given the intertwining and exacerbating nature of substance use, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impacts on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted BIPOC, which can be seen by cumulative infection, hospitalization and death rates that are higher among minority racial/ethnic groups than whites.30 Certain social determinants of health and other risk factors for increased substance use may contribute to this increased risk including social stressors (e.g., discrimination, stigma, profiling), access to and utilization of healthcare, socioeconomic disparities (e.g., employment, housing, factors relating to school and education31) and access to transportation.32 People of color are more likely to work in jobs that require a physical presence in the workplace and are more likely to use public transportation, which puts them at increased risk for exposure to COVID-19.33 Furthermore, early data points to racial disparities in COVID-19 vaccinations, underscoring the importance of focusing on equity both regarding the vaccine rollout and its impact on the workplace.34
Access to treatment is critical, and is even more limited for BIPOC with SUDs. White Americans are 17% more likely to receive mental health treatment than Black or Hispanic people, and 20% more likely than Asian Americans.35 Regardless of socioeconomic status, data shows that Black individuals enter addiction treatment four to five years later than white individuals.36 Individuals in Latino communities who need treatment for an SUD are also less likely to access care.37 Addressing these discrepancies is made even more critical with rates of overdose increasing for some communities of color during the pandemic.38,39 In 2019, CDC reported although African Americans and Hispanics experience similar rates of opioid misuse when compared to the general population, they experienced the greatest increase in overdose death rates from synthetic opioids (such as fentanyl) from 2014 to 2017.
Substance use and SUDs impact all population groups in the U.S. and strategies to address them must be tailored to the diversity of targeted communities. Promoting a one-size-fits-all strategy inhibits access to appropriate, quality prevention and treatment for culturally diverse populations, as well as the efficacy of those interventions. An interdisciplinary, multi-level team approach including community leaders, associations, advocates and the general population working with policymakers, government agencies, educators, prevention specialists, employers and workplaces, and treatment and recovery providers is critical to understand the related issues and treatment barriers, as well as successful community-informed strategies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly increased risk factors for developing a SUD or OUD. The long-term effects of these risk factors may not been seen for some time, but warrant an increased focus on prevention and mental wellbeing. NSC looks forward to working with you to address these
priorities and enhance evidence-based prevention efforts in the future. Working together, we can enable people to live their fullest lives.
1 Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm
3 https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7013e2.htm?s_cid=mm7013e2_e&ACSTrackingID=USCDC_921- DM53115&ACSTrackingLabel=MMWR%20Early%20Release%20-
18 See: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/opioids/wsrp/default.html
19 See: https://www.samhsa.gov/grants/grant-announcements/ti-20-013
20 See: https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/wetp/index.cfm?id=2587 21https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29393/2019NSDUHFFRPDFWHTML/2019NSDUHFFR1PDFW090120.pdf 22 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0955395917300877
38 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Multiple Cause of Death 1999- 2019 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released December, 2020. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2019, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/mcd-icd10.html