GE embraces alternative care to fight opioid crisis

GE Employees

LAS VEGAS — After a 20-year-old employee died of an accidental drug overdose three years ago, GE knew they had to give their employees tools to combat the opioid epidemic.

Diana Han, chief medical officer and global medical director at GE, said the company adjusted its employee benefits to prevent and treat opioid addiction. GE partnered with the insurance company Anthem to roll out new benefits, which included physical therapy and other alternative treatments, Han said during a panel at the Benefits Forum & Expo last week.

“We tend to assume substance abuse users are unemployed, but 70% of them are actually employees,” said Eric Bailly, business solutions director at Anthem. “But introducing quality care into the ecosystem can help employees get their lives back on track.”

More than 130 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The epidemic costs the U.S. economy $78.5 billion a year in increased “cost of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement,” the CDC says. Yet, only 6% of employers offer alternative treatments in their benefit plans, according to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management.

GE discovered that 70% of its U.S. employees live in counties where drug related deaths occur at a more than 50% higher rate than the national average, Han said. The majority of those counties are in the Midwest and Southern states, where blue collar jobs are prevalent and opioids are commonly prescribed for musculoskeletal pain, she said.

“Our factories are in communities where [opioids are] a big problem,” Han said. “We knew we had to do a full-court press to address this as an employer.”

GE worked with Anthem to provide healthier alternative treatments to prescription painkillers. One of these benefits is unlimited physical therapy. The company hired a physical therapist to provide services to its largest U.S. worksites. GE’s new health insurance also provides full coverage for acupuncture and massage treatments, Han added.

“We decided to provide a holistic treatment for pain; we’re hoping it will get employees to think of using physical therapy first to manage pain,” Han said. “Opioids are not a first course of treatment.”

GE also hired six registered nurses to work with employees who might need to go on disability leave. Han said these medical professionals have been one of the company’s greatest assets by helping to change the conversation about pain.

“In terms of pain, [the nurses] talk about what you’re able to do, and not able to do,” Han said. “It gives us a much clearer picture of what’s going on than asking how the pain feels on a scale of one to 10.”

Han said she’s proud of how her company helps employees return to work after being on disability. Employees who can’t perform their normal duties at GE will have their job held for a year. During this time, the employee will work full-time at a local non-profit organization that partners with GE.

“We know it’s so critical for recovery to be gainfully employed, and not have money worries,” Han said. “By holding their job for a year, and having them work full time at a non-profit, they’re still able to feel a sense of purpose, which is so important for mental health.”

GE employees are also trained on the use of Narcan — the lifesaving drug administered during an overdose — every quarter.

“We never want to hear another story about someone found dead at the workplace,” Han said.

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