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Greenville Business Magazine

Opioid Crisis: South Carolina Businesses Wrestling with Epidemic

Apr 06, 2018 03:23PM ● By Makayla Gay

By David Dykes

   The young woman appeared no older than 17 when he carried her into the crowded emergency room at St. Francis Eastside hospital in Greenville on Christmas Eve.

She was unresponsive, arms dangling by her side, as the young man brought her to a waiting physician.

She had taken several Ambien and other drugs, possibly opioids.

The physician rushed her through double doors into a treatment area, while friends and family members gathered for a long vigil that extended into Christmas morning. It isn’t known if she recovered.

But it is known that she – and thousands of others – are succumbing to a growing epidemic that, in addition to societal and medical impacts, has serious and costly ramifications for businesses.

In remarks prepared for delivery in his State of the State address in January, Gov. Henry McMaster said that for the last three years, there have been more opioid-related deaths in South Carolina than homicides and drunk-driving deaths combined. In 2016, this “silent hurricane” killed 616 people, he said.

Since 2015, the State Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, has seen a more than 700 percent increase in cases involving fentanyl-related compounds, the governor said.

He called for a bold new approach to “this unprecedented threat.”

The opioid crisis cuts across mainstream America and the threat to businesses is real, says Christina Andrews, a researcher at the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work.

The cost to U.S. employers in absenteeism and drug use on the job is estimated at $25 billion annually, she says.

“This has not been a drug many employers have typically screened for because they have been prescription drugs,” Andrews says. “For so many years, literally decades at this point, these drugs have been marketed as a safe and evidence-based treatment for pain management. We’re now coming to the realization that these drugs are actually quite dangerous, and that safe prescribing is really important and more complex than we understood before.”

Businesses, she says, are wrestling with questions surrounding how to retain valuable employees who have made important contributions and “are suddenly struggling with addiction as a result of the prescription that was given to them by their doctor.”

“This particular issue is so big, and it is so multifaceted, that I don’t believe that there is any single corporation or organization that could put a dent in it,” Andrews says. “It really needs major federal and state involvement. These folks need to work together.”

She is nearing the end of a five-year study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, on the Affordable Care Act’s impact on the quality and accessibility of substance abuse treatment in the U.S.

According to the Brookings Institution, research by Alan B. Krueger, the director of the Princeton University Survey Research Center, discovered the increase in opioid prescriptions from 1999 to 2015 could account for about 20 percent of the decline in men’s labor force participation (LFP). Krueger found that over the last 15 years, LFP fell more in counties where more opioids were prescribed.

"We are watching the issue closely,” says Jason Zacher, the Greenville Chamber’s senior vice president for business advocacy and executive director of the Upstate Chamber Coalition. “We continue to examine the solutions being offered at the local, state, and federal levels as they relate to the workforce needs of Upstate businesses."  

McMaster, joined in December by members of the General Assembly, cabinet agency officials, and members of the state’s law enforcement community, declared a statewide public health emergency for the opioid epidemic and announced a comprehensive, statewide response.

The governor's emergency declaration allows state officials, private partners, and law enforcement to use the emergency management infrastructure to combat the growing epidemic.

"One piece of the puzzle I hope to bring to the table is us not losing the humanitarian aspect of what we’re here to talk about," former Greenville County Rep. Eric Bedingfield, who was chairman of the S.C. House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee, said at the time. "My family is just one of the more than 600 in South Carolina who have lost loved ones as a result of this epidemic. These people who find themselves addicted are not morally corrupt individuals. These are people who have a disease and who need help."

The Aetna Foundation, citing recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said more than 42,000 Americans die each year from opioid overdoses.

In response, the foundation announced it will provide grants totaling $6 million to fund select projects state and local leaders have identified as promising, or particularly well-suited to tackle the most critical opioid-related challenges.

The Aetna Foundation’s initial $1 million grant will go to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition for its Rural Opioid Overdose Prevention Project.

An average of four people a day died from drug overdoses in North Carolina in 2016, according to the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics.

“While this is a national health crisis, there is no single solution that can be applied across the country,” says Dr. Harold L. Paz, a member of the Aetna Foundation Board of Directors. “These grants will provide important resources to empower local communities to address the unique characteristics of the opioid-related problems they are facing.”

The foundation will announce grants to other organizations in additional states over the next several months.

Not wasting any time in attacking the problem, four South Carolina hospitals – Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center in Hartsville, Easley Baptist Hospital in Easley, Palmetto Health Richland in Columbia and Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill – will participate in the Managing Abstinence in Newborns (MAiN) program, an innovative treatment model for opioid-dependent newborns.  

Developed and piloted at the Greenville Health System, the therapy proactively targets symptoms associated with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a group of problems a newborn experiences when exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother’s womb.

The groundbreaking program features three key components: treatment for withdrawal in the newborns is started immediately to reduce pain and health complications; the mom is allowed to room with the baby for a week to help provide care and gain parenting skills; and the baby continues to be weaned off the opioids at home, avoiding a lengthy hospital stay.  

The South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services provided $1.2 million to support the initial pilot and analysis of the program at GHS and has designated $2.5 million over the next five years to expand MAiN to up to 10 additional hospitals across the state, including the initial four sites.