GLASGOW – Three out of every four Kentucky adults ages 18 to 64 with substance use disorder are active in the workforce, and two-thirds of Kentucky adults who misuse opioids are employed and silently suffering.

Those were among the facts presented Wednesday to roughly 50 people at a “transformational employment” minisummit that are behind the reason such events are seen as necessary.

“We’re doing minisummits in the southcentral Kentucky workforce region in partnership with Sonia Osman with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Workforce Center, and we’re bringing programs to our communities about the opioid epidemic and how we can help employers,” said James Moore, director of apprenticeships and programming for the SouthCentral Kentucky Workforce Development Board.

The ultimate goals for having the gathering were primarily twofold, Moore said. They wanted to make sure employers understand that addiction to substances can happen to anyone and then provide the resources they could use to help their employees.

Osman, employment specialist for Kentucky’s Strategic Initiative for Transformational Employment (KYSITE) through the Kentucky Chamber, said they educate employers, at no cost to them due to multiple partnerships, on how to be transformational employers – helping people in recovery to retain or return to stable employment opportunities.

She discussed that path Wednesday, but she first presented some statistics to reveal how prevalent the issue of opioid addiction is.

Citing a Washington Post report that used U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration statistics, in the period of 2006 to 2014, 2.4 billion pills were distributed in Kentucky, and more than 29 million of those were Barren County, which equated to an average of 77 pills per person per year. She said that report also discusses which pharmacies distribute the most.

In 2018, the number of Kentuckians who died from drug overdoses, 1,333, was 54 percent higher than for those who died in traffic accidents across the commonwealth. And the OD death rate was nearly three times as high as for people murdered that year.

She had also distributed a copies of the report “Opioid Abuse in Kentucky – The Business Community’s Perspective,” which is also online.

One of the first steps on that path to transformational employment, Osman said, is changing the organizational culture, starting with movement from the perception of addiction as a moral failure to one of chronic illness, and creating more in-house dialogue about addiction’s effects, such as reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, increased risk of injury and increased worker’s compensation, disability, medical and legal costs.

Policies and procedures regarding substance abuse should be reviewed and updated annually.

Some good resources or starting places for that process is the chamber’s Workforce Center Inventory and the Kentuckiana Health Collaborative toolkit for best practices.

Another step is to verify that benefit packages make access to substance use disorders easy to access, and companies can develop behavioral health and pain management benefits that reflect opioid epidemic learnings.

The health care utilization reports and other data provided can provide signals to overprescribing of opiates, she said, using an example from one company that dug deeper into those numbers to see what they revealed.

Employment/re-employment, the next step, involves hiring and retention of individuals in recovery as part of a human resources strategy.

Opioid abuse costs employers approximately $10 billion in absenteeism, she said, and that could be reduced if they better tapped into the recovery pipeline.

Training is another important step, with topics from prevention, treatment and recovery to how to administer naloxone, more commonly known by the name brand Narcan, and keeping some on hand. Only 24 percent of employers offer workplace training regarding prescription drugs, and that needs to be a focus, she said.

Meredith Hester, Eastern Kentucky CEP covering the 10 southcentral Kentucky counties in the Barren River Area Development District, then described the services she provides based on the Kentucky Opioid Response Effort.

“There’s one of me in every region in Kentucky,” she said.

To be eligible, a person has to have had some type of substance abuse disorder in the past, and she helps them break barriers to re-enter the workforce, often with the assistance of other agencies or programs.

Eliezer Mendez, a re-entry coordinator for the South Central Kentucky Workforce Development Board, shared his own story of addiction that ultimately led him into that position just a few months ago.

Mendez said he is an alcoholic and an addict and his father and grandfather were addicts as well. He lost his grandfather to that battle in 2005. That was also the year he got married and his addiction escalated to cocaine from what had started at 14 with marijuana and progressed to pain medications.

“It’s been a long, hard road,” Mendez said. “I couldn’t stop on my own.”

When he ended up incarcerated – again – he got put “in the hole” in jail.

His voice cracking, he said that as he sat in that room by himself, he realized he was truly alone for the first time in his life and had lost it all.

“Right then, that’s when I hit my rock bottom,” Mendez said.

He reached out to the entity he felt had always been with him but that he had pushed away, praying to God for help and vowed to serve him.

When he was released on parole in late July last year, he got connected through a re-employment program to the career center itself and just recently was chosen to his current position.

“We can change,” he said. “If you guys support us, we can change.”

The Wednesday agenda included information about naloxone, a drug used to counteract opioid overdoses, and where it’s available and how to use it; the syringe exchange programs in Barren and Warren counties and where else those are available; and information on what Kentucky Allies for Substance Abuse Prevention for Barren, Hart and Metcalfe counties does.

“Opioid Abuse in Kentucky – The Business Community’s Perspective” booklet

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