Prescription Painkillers Keep Injured Workers Off the Job Longer

Over the past decade, insurance companies that compensate workers who are injured on the job have faced growing payments to workers who were given prescription painkillers for routine injuries. The New York Times reports that insurers spend $1.4 billion per year on payouts for opioid painkillers like OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin. Besides paying for prescription painkillers, insurers are making additional disability payments to workers who are delayed or unable to return to work after being treated with strong painkillers.

prescription drugs
A 2008 study of workman compensation claims in California found that injured workers who took high dosages of prescription painkillers due to simple injuries like back strains stayed out of work three times longer than workers with similar injuries who were prescribed less medication. A 2010 study conducted by insurer Accident Fund Holdings found that workplace injuries cost an insurer nine times as much when OxyContin or other narcotic painkillers are part of the treatment.

Between 2001 and 2008, the percentage of painkillers among all drugs prescribed for workers’ injuries rose by 63 percent according. Insurance industry data also indicates that doctors in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Louisiana are the biggest drug prescribers for injured workers.

Part of the problem is that many doctors who prescribe powerful painkillers to injured workers are failing to monitor their patients and provide psychological evaluation to prevent drug abuse. A recent study completed by the Workers Compensation Research Institute found that nearly one in 12 workers injured on the job who receive narcotic painkillers are still taking them three to six months later.

Many states are reacting to the rise in prescription drug abuse with legislation that requires prescribers to complete training in pain management and identification of patients who are at high risk for drug abuse and addiction. States are also funding prescription database systems that help prevent patients from doctor-shopping for multiple painkiller prescriptions.

According to The New York Times, insurance companies are partially responsible for the painkiller situation. Over the past decade, insurers have cut back on payments for therapy in favor of treatments that rely on prescription drugs. Opioid painkillers have been widely prescribed to treat common problems such as lower back pain despite the lack of evidence that they are effective in providing long-term benefits.

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