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Employer Behavioral Health Programs Need Opioid, Suicide Focus

April 2, 2019
By Jessica Kent
Health Payer Intelligence

Seventy percent of employers are either currently addressing or plan to address behavioral health over the next few years, according to a recent survey from Willis Towers Watson, but many of these initiatives fail to focus strongly on opioid abuse and suicide prevention.

Programs that do not offer enough support for employees at risk of opioid abuse or suicide are leaving huge gaps around two of the nation’s most impactful public health concerns, said the report.

Researchers surveyed 535 US employers to better understand current and future trends in mental healthcare. The results showed that although most employers are focusing on mental and behavioral health, just 22 percent said they currently have or plan to implement programs that address opioid use and suicide prevention in 2019.

These plans include facilitating open discussions and building a judgment-free culture, as well as partnering with outside vendors to provide mental health support.

An additional 23 percent are considering initiatives to prevent opioid abuse in 2020 or 2021, but just 15 percent are considering programs to prevent suicide over this period.

These findings are troubling, especially since the US is currently experiencing the highest rates of alcohol, drug, and suicide-related deaths since 1999, Willis Towers Watson noted.

“The fact that employers are starting to address mental or behavioral health is encouraging; however, the lack of specific action on drug use and suicide is alarming,” said Mandie Conforti, LCSW, senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson.

“It would be dangerous for employers to simply ‘check the box’ on improved employee assistance programs and unintentionally lull themselves into a false sense of security that addiction and suicide won’t impact their workforce. These are real and difficult issues that require close attention and monitoring.”

Substance abuse and depression can have a major impact on workplace morale, Willis Towers Watson said, as well as company finances. The organization stated that employees suffering from these conditions may accumulate two to four times more medical claims and six times more emergency room visitsthan employees without these conditions.

“The nation’s workforces are not immune from the critical mental and behavioral health issues sadly affecting millions of Americans, yet many employers are slow to put programs into place,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD, Health Management practice co-leader at Willis Towers Watson.

“Employers have a significant opportunity to do more to address the stigma tied to mental illness and help employees get the care they need — avoiding devastating consequences.”

Employers have also reported concerns about access to comprehensive, high-quality mental health services. In a previous Willis Towers Watson survey, 54 percent of employers ranked mental health treatment as their top area of concern, while 47 percent said substance abuse treatment was their number-one worry.

To address concerns around behavioral and mental health, the researchers suggested that employers offer comprehensive behavioral health coverage, with significantly improved access to networks and high-quality providers.

Employers could consider telemedicine, as well as onsite or near-site behavioral healthcare delivery options.

Additionally, the organization recommended that employers create a culture of support, where people can discuss mental health and substance abuse without stigma. Employers could launch suicide awareness and prevention campaigns and provide targeted manager training, or consider incorporating behavioral health into diversity initiatives.

Finally, the organization recommended that employers rethink benefits programs to account for holistic and integrated wellbeing.

“Financial, emotional, social and physical health are inextricably connected and correlated,” researchers said.

“Keep in mind the impact that financial strain, a new medical diagnosis, workplace stress or not feeling able to bring your whole self to work can have on employees’ mental health.”

The results show that employers can increase their efforts to address the behavioral and mental health of their employees.

“If care for the welfare, productivity and retention of employees isn’t sufficient motivation for employers to act fast to bring adequate access to behavioral health care services, the financial strain of stress, anxiety, depression, suicide and substance abuse on their bottom line simply cannot be ignored,” said Conforti.


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